Sharing the Depth of the Human Experience: “Portraits of Homelessness” at the 2015 Global Street Paper Summit
By Lindsey Habenicht, Project Assistant, Seattle University Project on Family Homelessness
Editor’s Note: Seattle University hosted the International Network of Street Papers (INSP) Global Street Paper Summit June 24-26, 2015, which welcomed more than 120 journalists from street papers in 22 countries, including Seattle’s Real Change. Our assistant, Lindsey Habenicht (above), is spending the summer as an intern for one of those papers, Street Sense of Washington, D.C. Before she left Seattle, Lindsey attended the Summit as a street paper communicator and volunteer blogger. This is an adapted version of Lindsey’s post for the Summit.
The narrative of what homelessness is and is not is often uninformed, uneducated, and even unknown completely. While many are aware of the issue of homelessness, they remain unaware of the person: the veteran, the child, the musician, the artist, the entrepreneur, and the like.
“Why is that?” asked Rex Hohlbein of Facing Homelessness. “How could [we] be so disconnected from the simple and obvious fact that homelessness involves real people with real suffering?”
Keynote speaker Rex Holbein started the Facebook page “Homeless in Seattle”’ in March of 2011 to share something beautiful about each person living on the street. Photo courtesy of facinghomelessness.org
Rex was the keynote speaker at the Global Street Paper Summit’s opening night event, “Portraits of Homelessness,” June 24, which told stories through more than 100 works of visual art, films and audio recordings.
“One of the problems that we have in answering this question is that, in truth, we’re really not close enough to the issue to know how to answer it,” Rex said. “The issue is so overwhelming intellectually and emotionally that we distance ourselves from it in some way. We end up talking about statistics and symptoms.”
Connecting to the issue
We talk statistics because they allow us to remain disconnected from the issue. They’re just numbers: This year 1 in 45 children in the U.S. will experience homelessness; 1,100 people in King County are living in their vehicles; more than 3,700 people are living in King County unsheltered.
Contrastingly, we don’t talk about the stories and experiences of the people who make up those empty numbers because, just maybe, we’ll find that we aren’t all that different — that homelessness is never really that far away — and we’re afraid of how that makes us feel: vulnerable.
Some of the many portraits of those experiencing homelessness that bring a face to the large and often distant issue of homelessness. Photo courtesy of Homeless in Seattle’s Facebook page
But taking a step back, the former architect recalls the moment that this all changed for him: “One morning, I was coming in on the Burke-Gilman trail and I found these two carts parked outside my office filled with art and art supplies. I don’t know why I did this, but I got off my bike and I tapped the man sleeping and I said to him, ‘when you get up, and if you want, you’re welcome to come over to the gray house for a cup of tea,’” Rex continues, “and about an hour later, this man walked in and he introduced himself as Chiaka.”
After only a short time, the two had formed a unique bond. Hohlbein asked Chiaka if he wanted to keep his art and supplies in the shed and, though he was too afraid to say it initially, asked if he’d want to sleep there, too.
Discovering an artist
Chiaka changed Rex’s perspectives on homelessness and became his very good friend. Photo courtesy of http://www.quirksee.org
Hohlbein didn’t know it at the time, but Chiaka was an incredible artist. Chiaka explained that, for the last 10 years, he’d been living on the streets of Seattle and sold his art for nearly nothing so that he could pay for food and supplies.
“I realized then what Chiaka had done for me. He had blown apart the negative stereotypes of homelessness.”
This caused a chain reaction for Hohlbein, who began to think about the others he had met along the canal and the challenges they’ve faced struggling under the negative stereotypes of homelessness. In an attempt to share the depth of each individual’s story, Hohlbein started a Facebook page, Homeless in Seattle, to raise awareness for those living without shelter by sharing photos and personal stories.
That page now has more than 17,000 “likes” from all over the world. It led Hohlbein to establish a new nonprofit organization, Facing Homelessness.
A series of powerful visuals flashed onto the screen throughout the presentation, as Hohlbein shared his experience with the audience of street paper journalists from around the world.
Chillingly beautiful images of Athena and Adam, Curtis, Preacher John and T-Bone, Mark, Robert and Christina, Andy, Joseph, Samantha, Lisa, Richard, and so many more allowed us to put faces to the numbers. For many, it made homelessness real.
Rex Hohlbein shares his popular Facebook page, Homeless in Seattle, and how it has spread nationwide.
The photos have also served an important advocacy need. Rex often posts a request from the people he photographs – a sleeping bag, a used guitar, boots for forest-firefighting training – and invites people to donate just $5. He said that because of the page’s generous followers,100 percent of their crowdfunding requests has been met.
“Every single person that is homeless has a profound reason for being there, and in our busy, busy lives, we have passed over these profound reasons,” Hohlbein continued, “but if we are going to end homelessness, we are going to have to slow down and make this personal.”
Saying hello, seeing the beauty
Hohlbein hopes that Homeless in Seattle will begin the process of turning strangers into friends and encourage people to actively work to find the beauty that is in all of us. He then shared how we can support Facing Homelessness’ mission by practicing two simple gestures:
- Just say hello. By giving your smile or words, you can make someone feel seen, loved, and connected to their community.
- Purchase a Real Change newspaper. With just $2, you are saying, “I believe in you, and thank you for selling something of worth to me.”
“Ending homelessness starts by wanting to end it, and wanting to end it begins by seeing the beauty in each person, reaching out to just say hello, and moving forward with kindness,” he concluded.
Sample tweets from the evening, at #INSP2015.
Hohlbein’s photographs are so vital in telling the dynamic stories of our neighbors experiencing homelessness. Susan Russell, an incredibly beautiful person, passionate advocate, and Real Change vendor, responded to Rex Hohlbein’s work, telling me: “It’s amazing because he brings forth that we should not just have an awareness, but should put [homelessness] in our hearts so that we each will make a personal commitment.”
Storytelling through universal language
Delegates at #INSP2015 were also invited to view work from photojournalist Dan Lamont and entrepreneur Kyle Kesterson. Dan was a Seattle University journalism fellow who documented the lives of six Washington families; Kyle recorded moving images from an evening on street outreach with Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission. Both humanize the issue of homelessness.
Dan Lamont shot these powerful photos that depict families experiencing homelessness in Washington state.
“Each person certainly is different, and their story is completely different,” said Kyle Kesterson, “but photography isn’t about snapping a photo and capturing only a moment in time, it’s about allowing the stories to really start to emerge and connecting with [the homeless] authentically.“
Kyle Kesterson’s (foreground) and Dan Lamont’s (background) photos on display at #INSP2015’s Portraits of Homelessness event. Photo by @MegaphoneMag.
“We have to recognize that we can’t tolerate the kind of social inequality that we seem to be willing to tolerate,” noted Dan Lamont, “so the thing that this work does for me is make me think about what I can do next to help.”
Guests could visit the Real Change Portrait Project, “Change Agents.” This collection of more than 30 beautiful works of art portraying Real Change vendors was on display in the Vachon Gallery in Seattle U’s Vachon Gallery.
This quilt was one of the many artworks on display showcasing portraits of Real Change vendors. The exhibit gave readers an inside look at both the vendors and artists.
Our Seattle U project also hosted two interactive exhibits with film and audio. In the StoryCorps listening room, our Firesteel colleague, Denise Miller, walked listeners through the fantastic collection of stories about family homelessness at firesteelwa.org/storycorps.
Tiana Quitugua (Seattle University Project on Family Homelessness, left) and Denise Miller (YWCA and Firesteel, right) invited INSP attendees to listen to the StoryCorps recordings housed on the Firesteel website.
In the film screening room, guests could watch the four animated short films from our “American Refugees” collection. Lindy Boustedt, a former longtime Seattle U employee, was the producer of the four films and showed participants how to download the films on YouTube for viewing when they get back home.
Former Film and Family Homelessness project manager Lindy Boustedt (left) and Perry Firth of the Project on Family Homelessness welcome INSP attendees as they watch the four animated American Refugee films.
- To follow the important work of Rex and his team, like Homeless in Seattle on Facebook.
- For more photos from the Portraits of Homelessness event, visit our Facebook album.
- See the tweets of journalists from all over the world attending the Summit and the Portraits of Homelessness event, in this excellent Storify by INSP. (We Love Storify!)
- Read what keeps Rex’s colleague Margie Quinn going as an advocate, in this beautiful reflection recently posted on the Faith & Family Homelessness blog.