“Someone stole my freaking guitar,” Rellick, who keeps a tent under the Alaskan Way Viaduct, recently announced. He wasn’t just registering his grievance to the wind. He was telling his friend Rex Hohlbein, who for the last five years has embarked on an enterprise unlike anything the housing crisis has seen: Facing Homelessness, part social-media experiment, part unconventional dot-org. Minutes later, just as he’s done since 2013, Hohlbein posted a photo (in this case on Instagram) with a call to action: Anyone out there have a guitar or banjo—because Rellick really wanted a banjo—to spare?
Hohlbein was a successful architect before hanging up his T-square to devote his time to photographing the men, women, and kids for whom Seattle’s streets are home. With these portraits, Hohlbein asked his audience to stop looking at homelessness in the abstract and get to know the people living it—now some 11,600 in King County. And when he informed his social media followers of a specific need—so-and-so needs a new sleeping bag, say—those followers delivered.
Today, though it runs on an annual operating budget of less than $65,000, Facing Homelessness has expanded to include five employees; they work out of a church basement office, where those in need receive supplies like socks and toiletries. The Block Project, the organization’s newest venture, finds Hohlbein at the drafting table again—designing houses for those without. The 125-square-foot structures are situated in the backyards of volunteer homeowners. The goal: Place 150 of these dwellings a year.
But some things at Facing Homelessness remain the same. Back in March, nine days after Hohlbein sent out his SOS for Rellick, the musician sat in that church basement office, strumming a banjo. A Facing Homelessness follower named Liz had gifted it, and she leaned in as Rellick plucked through the chords of a lofty bluegrass jam, its twang as worthy of a Grand Ole Opry stage as a tent overlooking Elliott Bay.