Editor's Note

Putting a Face on Homelessness

Rex Hohlbein’s methods have made a difference in the lives of individuals, but they’re also an inspiration in another way.

By James Ross Gardner January 5, 2016 Published in the January 2016 issue of Seattle Met

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There’s tension in this issue’s two-part feature on homelessness. In part one (“Can Seattle Make Homelessness Rare?”), news editor Josh Feit walks us through King County’s failed 10-year plan to end homelessness, outlining differences between two historically conflicting approaches—building affordable housing units versus assessing individual needs and spending in more targeted ways, such as helping someone buy a plane ticket home. 

In part two (“Generous Exposure”) we discover that architect turned photographer and activist Rex Hohlbein has already chosen a side. 

See, Hohlbein finds no truck with thinking about homelessness in such gargantuan terms that you feel hopeless against the staggering numbers. And they are staggering. At last January’s annual One Night Count—a 30-year tradition in which hundreds of volunteers fan out across the region—the tally clocked more than 10,000 homeless, most in transitional housing and shelters, but an astonishing 3,772 out in the elements; 31 of those unsheltered people were minors. There are more people homeless in the area now, in fact, than when the 10-year plan launched in 2005, a dismal legacy for a city as prosperous as Seattle. It is easy to feel hopeless.

But Hohlbein’s approach is to chip away at that 10,000-person puzzle one handshake, smile, and shutter click at a time. He befriends people he meets on the streets, learns their story, takes their photo, and posts it all on the Homelessness in Seattle Facebook page, where his more than 28,000 followers are drawn in by the portraits and learn about, say, a family that just needs a few nights at a motel. The dollars, five bucks here, 25 there, trickle in. 

Hohlbein’s methods have made a difference in the lives of individuals, but they’re an inspiration in another way. 

As Feit points out, there’s a shift in public policy from the “housing first” emphasis of the 10-year plan to incorporating something closer to what Hohlbein’s been doing for years. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development calls it “coordinated entry,” an approach it describes as prioritizing “assistance based on vulnerability and severity of service needs to ensure that people who need assistance the most can receive it in a timely manner.” Less red tape. More compassion.

For Hohlbein that starts with a simple gesture, one he’s seen change the lives of the people on the street, people too often ignored. “Just stop,” he says. “Stop and say hello.”

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