Just say hello

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A few years ago architect Rex Hohlbein arrived at his office on the ship canal in Fremont and saw a guy sleeping, a few possessions around him, on the grass by the canal wall edge. That proved to be the end of his architecture career.

Rex built a friendship of sorts with the homeless man after many days taking his coffee or lunch outside and striking up conversations with the man. After a while he offered Chiaka bathroom and indoor rest privileges. After learning more about the man and his art, Rex let him store his supplies and even sleep in part of the building.

After posting and selling some of Chiaka’s art for him via Facebook and, ultimately, helping him reconnect with the family he lost a decade ago, Rex heard a new calling. That calling is to reshape how you and I “see” someone when they’re sleeping in a doorway, asking for change on a sidewalk, heading in and out of a shelter or camped along a place like the ship canal.

Through Homeless in Seattle (Just Say Hello) on Facebook, Rex posts rich black and white portraits and a bit of the stories of the homeless people he meets. He meets a lot of them because he works at it and because through this work his office has become an informal drop-in center. When I visited last Friday morning, I met a half dozen or more men, usually bent and hobbled in some way, looking for a cup of coffee, maybe a package of new socks and a little time with Rex. He listens wholly and engages with them in ways most of us don’t as we go about our lives.

In addition to the photos on Facebook, the site has proven to be an effective place to crowd-course help to solve emergency problems. Paying off parking tickets in order to avoid losing an RV/home, new shoes, some way to get into case management, temporary home for a dog while someone gets a hospital procedure – all of it gets posted with hope that social media will link the ask to someone who can.

Rex’s is the most grassroots of grassroots endeavors. Homeless in Seattle has started on the path to becoming a non-profit organization and he has great help in his board members, like public defender and former Seattle School Boardmember Nancy Waldman. Rex will move his office to Ballard this spring due and likely connect with a whole new set of faces in the neighborhood. Lucky for them.