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Rex Hohlbein on using images to give voice to the homeless

By Celina Kareiva

When Chiaka came into Rex Hohlbein’s life, the Seattle architect found himself with a foot in two worlds. Hohlbein had long dealt in million-dollar homes. But when he found Chiaka on a park bench – a shopping cart full of art supplies beside him – Hohlbein was suddenly confronted with a community who had nothing to their name.

That meeting grew into a friendship and Hohlbein invited Chiaka into his home. Chiaka in turn began sharing his paintings and canvases with Hohlbein, who has since grown to be an ally and advocate for the homeless community in Seattle.

Rex Hohlbein explains his Homeless in Seattle project during #INSP2015.

“I began to think about all the other folks that I had been meeting on this park bench on the canal. I realised that they had also been struggling against the negative stereotypes surrounding homelessness,” he recalled. “The sole purpose [of this project] was to just look closer to get past the negative and to look at the beauty of each person.”

Hohlbein introduced the Portraits of Homelessness multimedia exhibition on the first evening of the INSP 2015 Summit with a seemingly simple question: Do we really want to end homelessness? Do we really care?

He then flashed images across the screen: Ronnie, Andy, Samantha and Richard. Each – he emphasised – more than a face, but an individual with their own story to tell.

“I have been aware of the issue of homelessness my entire life and I have been unaware of the person – the mother, the father and child suffering through it. Why is that? How could I be so disconnected from the simple fact that homelessness involves real people with real suffering?” asked Hohlbein.

“One of the problems that comes up in answering this question is that, in truth, we’re really not that close to the issue to know how to answer it. The issue is so overwhelming intellectually and emotionally that we all distance ourselves from it. We end up talking about statistics and symptoms.”

However, even the statistics are compelling: in King County 3,700 people are homeless, a number up over 21 percent from last year and 14 percent from the year before that, and 1,100 individuals live in their vehicles.

Hohlbein’s architecture office became a drop-in center and a resting stop for the homeless. He began taking photos of the visitors and recording their stories. One day, he started a Facebook group, Homeless in Seattle, which quickly built a large following. To date, it has more than 17,000 page ‘Likes’ and Hohlbein has never had an unmet request for a donation or assistance.

Hohlbein’s speech on Wednesday, 23 June was laced with anecdotes. For instance, he recalled his friendship with Darwin, who until recently had been chronically homeless for much of his life. Living on the streets, he told Hohlbein, was like being divided from the rest of the world.

“When you are living outside on the street it is like you are living behind a giant Plexiglass divider,” he said. “Even though it appears you’re mingling with everyone else you actually are not. What I realised in that moment [is that] when we walk past somebody who’s homeless on the street without acknowledging them, we unknowingly create our own wall of Plexiglass.”

Hohlbein hopes Homeless in Seattle shatters negative stereotypes and encourages people to make housing affordability and homelessness “our problem”: “My goal was never going to be to fix anybody. It was just [to put] love into the equation.”

An exhibit of Hohlbein’s photography is on display in Seattle University’s Pigott Building during #INSP2015For more, visit www.facinghomelessness.org

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