Rex Hohlbein Has Designs on Ending Homelessness
The architect is closing his Fremont firm to educate “homed” people on the plight of Seattle’s homeless and bring much-needed empathy to the equation.
Five years later Rex Hohlbein still can’t tell you why he stopped to offer tea to the homeless man outside of his office in Fremont. But he did, and that split-second decision changed everything. Back then Hohlbein designed homes for a living, but as he educated himself on the plight of King County’s roughly 9,000 homeless his focus shifted from architecture to advocacy. Now his office has become an oasis for those living on the street, a place to warm up or just feel normal for a few hours, and this spring he’s giving up his career altogether to launch the nonprofit Facing Homelessness. He’s still drawing up the plans, but the mission is simple: to educate, to change minds, and to build a little empathy.
When your heart, compassion, intuition, or whatever it is says, “Hey, I should reach out right now,” you should always listen to that. We don’t see all of the strings that attach each of us together, but I do believe that we’re all connected.
If you take five minutes with anybody who’s living on the street and just listen—genuinely listen—you will find out why they’re there. And you will find that there are underlying issues: mental health; emotional, sexual, or physical abuse; trauma; PTSD. So what I want to say to everyone—especially the people who yell out of their car, “Get a job, asshole”—is that you’d take that back if you took a moment to understand what that person’s life journey has been like.
What I’m not trying to do is provide resources. The intent of what we’re doing here is to actually work with people who’ve never lived on the street, to change their attitude and their understanding of what this issue is. The moment we hit critical mass and people actually see the issue of homelessness for what it is—people struggling to survive on the street, really suffering—I think then the conversation is over and we just go about fixing it.
The last two years my income took a real hit. And it became apparent that I either had to stop doing homeless work or I had to start a nonprofit to create a salary. I was on a crash course. I still am. My wife would say, “It’s a good thing you’re hanging out with the homeless. You’re picking up some survival skills that you’re going to need.”
There’s this feeling of simplifying that comes to you when you hit midlife. Actually I think there’s a larger cultural thing that’s starting to happen, where we’re moving away—hopefully—from this obsession with material things. And this downturn in our income has allowed us to act on that. So we say, “You know what? This is a good time for us to revisit how we spend money and, more specifically, how we’re not going to spend money.” There’s a silver lining to everything, right?
You see someone on the street and your heart says, I want to do something for this human being. But because the issue is so big, you know in that moment that you’re not going to be able to fix their mental health issue or their alcoholism or their aloneness. It’s too complicated. So you just walk by. And the unintended consequence is that when that happens to someone moment by moment, day after day, week after week, year after year, they begin to feel invisible.
Can I tell you a quick story? There’s a guy, Darwin, who I got to know because he sleeps in a doorway about two blocks down. I’d come by at 5:30 in the morning and see him and, most of the time, I’d just wave. But certain mornings when it was really cold, I’d invite him in for coffee or a chat. One morning, the rain is blowing sideways, and he’s soaked. I said, “Darwin, why don’t you come to my office and hang out.” So he spent the day at a desk by the window, and about three o’clock or so, he stands up and says, “I just want to thank you for letting me be inside today.” I’m looking past him out the window and the rain is still blowing sideways, and in my mind, I’m thinking, No shit. And then as if he could read my mind he says, “It’s not because it’s raining outside. I got to hear the phone ring. I got to hear you answer it. A client came in and talked architecture with you. The UPS guy came in and you signed for something and he genuinely said, ‘Hey, man, have a good day.’ Today I got to be a part of something normal.”
Have I enabled? I would guess yes. I probably have at some point. Am I super worried about it? No. What goes on here is more crisis oriented: Band-Aids, ibuprofen, something warm because it’s 20 degrees outside, a cup of coffee. If somebody needs something, give it to them.
The world doesn’t need one more architect making X amount of money that he can then donate. This isn’t a money-shortage problem. What we need are people—and not just myself—who are pushing the message that these are human beings. We need to look at homelessness as an atrocity.
I recently met with a woman who’s been working with the homeless for 20 years. She’s worried that I’m going to burn out, and she could be right. But all I can tell you on that is that I’m getting a lot more than I’m putting in. I’ve never felt more connected to my community. I’ve never felt more alive, really.