Rex Hohlbein had been designing luxurious homes for more than two decades when his life began to shift.
He began inviting homeless people into the office of his architecture firm to warm up, use the bathroom and get a cup of coffee. Pretty soon, he found it hard to spend his days designing million-dollar homes when he was meeting so many people he found sleeping in tents or under a doorway.
“This is not anything against people that have money, in any way, shape or form,” Hohlbein said. “It’s just that as you start to understand how people are really struggling on the bottom end of our society, of our community, it’s hard to turn away from that.”
Hohlbein is now giving up his architecture practice to work full-time with people on the street. His life may never have taken this unexpected detour had he not met a man named Chiaka.
The story of Chiaka
On a morning about three years ago, Hohlbein was biking to his office on the Burke-Gilman Trail when he saw a man sleeping outside. Something compelled him to stop.
Hohlbein tapped the man’s shoulder and told him that after he woke up, he should come by his Fremont office to have a cup of coffee and use the bathroom. The man did, and introduced himself as Chiaka.
“He asked me if he could read me a children’s book story that he was writing. And he pulled out 20 pages of crumpled up 8½-by-11 [piece of paper] and I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’ve got to listen to 20 pages,”’ Hohlbein said. “But about three-quarters of the way through, I teared up. It was so beautiful, and in that moment I was just so taken by his story and his power of storytelling.”
Chiaka, Hohlbein learned, was also an artist. Hohlbein offered to store his art and let him sleep in the shed next to his office. He then started a Facebook page to highlight Chiaka’s artwork.
“And one morning when I came in, two young women from Pittsburgh were on the site and they were saying, ‘Oh my God, I think I just found my dad,’” Hohlbein said.
Chiaka had been living on the streets of Seattle for 10 years, according to Hohlbein, and his family had finally found him.
The Homeless in Seattle community
As Hohlbein was reading the online message, Chiaka walked in the door.
“And I said, ‘Chiaka, you’ve got to hear this,’ and I read all of that. And I turned around and he was just crying, just streaming tears and he looked at me and said, ‘I have to go home,’” Hohlbein said.
Chiaka’s family flew him back to Pittsburgh. Hohlbein dropped him off at Sea-Tac Airport and had a good cry. Soon he realized he wanted to reach out to other people on the street, and created another Facebook page called Homeless in Seattle.
Hohlbein takes and shares beautiful black-and-white portraits of the homeless and shares their stories in little snippets. And if they need something — they need a replacement for a stolen tent, say — he posts their needs, too. Nowadays, donations come streaming into Hohlbein’s office, and he shares equally striking photos of the donors along with their stories.
‘Reach out and give a smile, say hello’
If you just glance at the portraits on the Homeless in Seattle Facebook page, it’s hard to tell who’s homeless and who’s not. That’s deliberate, says Hohlbein, who wants to break down barriers between people with homes and people without.
Hohlbein once invited a homeless man named Darwin to come spend the day in his office and get out of the driving rain. At the end of the day, Darwin thanked him — not for letting him get out of the rain, but for letting him experience normal life — hearing a client come in to discuss an architecture project, seeing the UPS delivery guy stop by.
Darwin described homeless life as living behind a Plexiglas divider from the rest of the world.
“I would say that we can take that down,” Hohlbein said. “It’s the goal of what Homeless in Seattle is doing, is to ask everybody to take their Plexiglas piece down, and to reach out and give a smile, say hello, make some contact. And I think when we do that, we change the conversation about homelessness.”
Not your usual architecture office
These days, Hohlbein’s office is crammed with things you’d probably never find in another architecture office. Stacked from floor to ceiling in one corner are brand-new REI sleeping bags. There are also hand warmers, boxes of granola bars, travel-sized bottles of shampoo, boxes heaped with jackets, socks and boots. And all day long, people knock on his door, or just walk in.
On a recent morning, a lanky young man named Wes dropped by to warm up and stash his belongings for a while. He stopped in front of the wall of black-and-white portraits of homeless people Hohlbein has photographed. They’re his friends.
“OK, this is my friend Bill with the Sub Pop cap. This guy gives guitar lessons and he’s a prolific musician,” Wes said as he moved from one picture to another. “This is Dinkus. I’ve never met Dinkus, but he knows everyone I know from Gas Works Park. Pretty funny.”
Capturing the beauty of a person
When he first began reaching out to the homeless, Hohlbein decided he wanted to use his camera to show the full dimensions of people living on the margins.
“There was this beginning thought that I wanted to somehow represent people that were living on the street, show their beauty — their physical beauty but also their beauty of person,” Hohlbein said.
His wife, Cindy Hohlbein, says this kind of empathy has always been a part of who Rex is.
“He loves people and he doesn’t care who they are, where they came from, what socioeconomic level they are. He just loves people,” she said.
Cindy, who teaches kids with developmental disabilities, says their household income has dropped as Rex shifted away from architecture the past couple of years (he’s now down to just two clients). But Cindy says working with the homeless is what makes him happy.
“It got to a point where Rex couldn’t justify necessarily putting all his energy into one more big, beautiful home when there’s people living on the streets,” she said.
A refuge for all
Over time, Hohlbein’s office has morphed into a refuge.
A man named Preacher John drops by from time to time. His beard is grizzled, and he was wearing a big red parka. He says these days, he sleeps under a doorway or on the beach at Golden Gardens park. But Hohlbein helps Preacher John connect with his past, back when he sang with Jimi Hendrix’s brother, Leon.
During a recent visit, Hohlbein coaxed him to sing a few bars.
“John, do you mind sharing a little bit of your voice? Your voice is just so beautiful to me,” Hohlbein told him.
“Oh, bless your heart,” replied Preacher John. He then started beating a drum, and when he opened his mouth, the walls vibrated with his incredibly raw, full-throated blues.
Just say hello
Preacher John was wearing brand-new boots that a man named Robert donated after they met at Hohlbein’s office. Hohlbein says facilitating connections like theirs is where his passion lies these days.
“If you are giving love to somebody, you are only doing good,” Hohlbein said. “And the reason is because if someone feels loved, they have a much greater chance of moving their life forward.”
Hohlbein is in the process of launching a nonprofit group called Facing Homelessness to keep his own efforts moving forward. He’s currently trying to raise funds for the group. But he says his biggest mission is to get people to just say hello to those they see on the street.
Hohlbein recently teamed up with WSU architecture students to design backyard transitional homes. Read about their work >>>