April 1, 2020

This Seattle nonprofit is helping end homelessness, one backyard house at a time

Meet Facing Homelessness, one of the finalists for the 2020 Renewal Awards. Five winners each will receive $40,000 from The Atlantic and Allstate.

The nonprofit Facing Homelessness launched The BLOCK Project in 2016 to build accessory dwelling units for homeless neighbors in willing homeowners' backyards.

Editor's Note

Meet the finalists for the 2020 Renewal Awards. The annual program from The Atlantic and Allstate honors nonprofits that are creatively solving problems in their communities. This year, five winners each will receive a $40,000 prize from The Atlantic and Allstate. Subscribe to our newsletter to be the first to find out who the winners are and follow the hashtag #RenewalAwards.

With nearly 12,000 people experiencing homelessness in Seattle and surrounding King County, Washington has the third-highest homeless population area in the country. Facing Homelessness wants to change this by fostering a connection between sheltered people and their homeless neighbors, and creating a sense of community among them.

The Seattle nonprofit launched an initiative to tackle the crisis in 2016. Called The BLOCK Project, it brings new housing into existing neighborhoods by building 125-square-foot detached accessory dwelling units in the backyards of willing homeowners. These units contain a kitchen, bathroom, sleeping area—everything a person needs. These houses are also environmentally friendly. Constructed out of sustainably sourced materials, they’re outfitted with solar panels and a water catchment and filtration system.

Rex Hohlbein, a Seattle-based architect, founded Facing Homelessness in 2010. Hohlbein would meet people in his community experiencing homelessness and would invite them into his office to talk.

“The negative stereotype against the homeless was not matching up to the beauty of those I was meeting,” Hohlbein said. He began sharing photos and stories of the people he met on social media. This passion project eventually became Facing Homelessness.

Since launching the BLOCK Project, more than 100 Seattle homeowners have welcomed a BLOCK home into their yards. Now, construction is underway for their warehouse facility, which will help make the building process more efficient. With the warehouse facility, the nonprofit believes they will be able to construct one house per week.

“The BLOCK project approach sees relationships as the building blocks for healing communities. Each house built renews the community,” wrote Executive Director Sara Vander Zanden in her nomination essay.

Once they master the Seattle model, Facing Homelessness hopes to bring the BLOCK project model to other major cities across the U.S. As of right now, they are continuing to share their learnings with other organizations and growing their network for hosts.

“The closer you bring a person to the issue of homelessness, the more you feel and the more you act,” Hohlbein told the Seattle Times in 2017.

Follow Facing Homelessness on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. You can donate to the BLOCK Project here.

Danielle Moskowitz

Danielle Moskowitz

Dani Moskowitz is a contributor to The Renewal Project.
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