Rex Hohlbein says hello to almost everyone he meets. As he walks around Fremont near his office, he'll greet someone jogging down the Burke-Gilman Trail, nod to a business owner on a lunch break or exchange pleasantries with a man taking shelter underneath a covered bench by the Lake Washington Ship Canal.
Hohlbein typically gets two kinds of responses. The people with homes and jobs tend to nod or say hello before rushing off to the next appointment. Those who don't have either tend to just start talking -- a lot.
The homeless people he meets are starved for conversation, Hohlbein said. They tell him they sometimes feel invisible.
So just about every morning, lunch break and afternoon, Hohlbein sits on the covered bench by the water's edge on Northwest Canal Street and learns about someone else's life.
It's part of a dialogue he started three years ago, after he met an artist named Chiaka outside his office.
Chiaka painted brightly colored portraits of women with trees, homes and people sprouting off of their faces and shoulders. Hohlbein was so moved by the man's art he invited him to stay in a shed next to his office.
Soon, the people he met stopped being "homeless people" and simply became his friends; T. Bone, Gladys and John. With digital Canon camera in his hand, Hohlbein took their pictures and listened to their stories.
Hohlbein, 53, lives in Montlake neighborhood and has never been homeless.
He and his wife, a nurse and teacher, raised two daughters, one of whom also pursued architecture.
For work he designs million-dollar houses. Hohlbein jokes that he's stuck between the homeless people he meets and the clients for whom he works.
Or maybe he's a bridge between the two.
Homeless in Fremont
Hohlbein moved into Tent City 3 to get to know the community. He carries his camera nearly everywhere he goes. With it he hopes to promote contact between people, connecting haves and have-nots to meet and form friendships. He's organized performances for homeless artists at his office and nearby cafes, and he runs a Facebook page called Homeless In Seattle where he posts the stories and portraits of the people he meets.
Hohlbein started "Homeless In Seattle" nearly a year ago. On it, he describes the subjects of his photos with paragraphs so short and vivid they read like poetry.
"This is Randy," he posted with one photo. "He is 44 years old and homeless, works construction for his brother. Says most of the people in jail just have a hard time fitting in with society. Also feels the most important thing in life is a simple kiss."
Another entry tells of a man standing in front of a grocery willing to buy $20 of groceries on his EBT card for $10 cash. Another concerns a woman who looks for vacant homes in which to charge her phone and wash her clothes.
The effect is something like Hohlbein's chance encounters along the Lake Washington Ship Canal. Homeless in Seattle has a
following of 750 people, most of whom, he said, start by reading the stories and looking at the photographs. Some become more engaged. They write comments. They cheer successes. They hold out hope.
Making themselves at home
Hohlbein's office sits above a massage therapy clinic in an old, converted green house. The front room of his office holds a circle of wooden folding chairs, three bongo drums and shelves cluttered with books about architecture. There is no couch or kitchen, but it feels homey.
Hohlbein frequently invites people inside to get warm, use the bathroom or make a phone call. One woman sometimes spends six hours at a stretch silently reading his architecture books. Sometimes a man comes in, sits down, and does the New York Times crossword.
Several people who live outdoors nearby have their mail sent to him. Hohlbein keeps it for them, in a file with their name on it, each one stacked on a wooden shelf in his office.
On the wall are 70 small portraits of homeless men and women. In each photo the subject looks straight at the camera. It's no accident. Hohlbein rarely releases the shutter if someone is unaware or disengaged. If he shot them facing away, or looking down or curled up in a sleeping bag, you, the viewer, could ignore them, Hohlbein said.
The office doubles as a music venue. On Jan. 12, Hohlbein invited a man named John to play guitar and sing there.
Thirty people came after they heard about it on Facebook, two from as far as Burien.
John has already moved up in the performing world. He plays the Canal Caf