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Wednesday, December 3, 2014 - Page updated at 07:00 p.m.

Danny Westneat
At local motels, no room for the homeless, paid or not

By Danny Westneat
Seattle Times staff columnist

The trouble with being poor goes far beyond having no money, Rex Hohlbein learned the other day.

Example: Even if something is paid in advance, sometimes they still kick you out and threaten to call police — just because you fit the poverty profile.

“I’ve had my eyes opened up a bit,” says Hohlbein, a Seattle architect.

Hohlbein spent 25 years designing million-dollar homes for high-end clients before dropping his career to help people with no homes. Four years ago he started a campaign on the Internet where he posts black-and-white photos of the homeless, along with stories of their challenges and needs.

Almost overnight it exploded into a kind of guerrilla direct-aid charity. The site has 14,000 followers from 45 countries who contribute money and supplies to help the folks Hohlbein features.

So it was that last weekend he found himself up on Aurora, visiting a 60-year-old homeless woman, Gloria, whom he had checked into a motel. She had been ill and staying at the city’s cold-weather shelter — basically a mat on the floor at Seattle Center — when Hohlbein’s site raised enough money to buy her lodging during the cold snap.

But when Hohlbein went to pay to extend her stay, he handed the desk clerk a credit card from his charity with the words “Facing Homelessness” on it. The clerk refused it.

“ ‘We can’t take that because you’re not the one staying in the room,’ ” Hohlbein says the clerk explained.

Hohlbein offered to pay cash. No dice. So he went back to Gloria’s room to figure out what to do. The phone rang, and the clerk told them he’d refund any money they had paid previously but they’d have to leave immediately. They were now trespassing and he would call police.

“I said: ‘You’re going to throw a 60-year-old woman out into the cold?’ I was shaking,” Hohlbein said. “They wouldn’t allow us to pay.”

Gloria told him to accept it, that this was her life.

“Usually they call the police when we don’t pay, not when we do,” she joked.

That probably would have been the end of it. Except they then went to two more motels, which refused her on the same grounds — that Hohlbein was trying to pay with his “Facing Homelessness” credit card.

“I was beginning to think I should lie and say she’s my sister,” Hohlbein said (he eventually found her a room at the fourth motel).

What is going on? There is a law in Seattle requiring ID when you register for a room (which Gloria has), but nothing barring payment by a third party. Businesses do it all the time for their employees. And hotel reservation services encourage it: “Booking on behalf of someone else is just as easy as booking for yourself,” reads the website.

But that’s for the nonpoor society, apparently. Sharon Lee, director of Seattle’s Low Income Housing Institute, has booked and paid for rooms on Orbitz and Expedia for homeless families, and still heard of their being turned away at the motel door. “I think it’s discriminatory,” Lee says. “They say it’s because of this policy or that. But it would never happen to you or me.”

Some motels in higher-crimes areas, which north Aurora fits, may have stricter policies to try to cut down on rooms being used for prostitution. But that doesn’t excuse turning away infirm, older women, or families with children.

For his part, Hohlbein refuses to name the specific motels. He said the entire point of his organization is to be positive, to try to highlight humanity on the city’s streets.

“I’m not going to go negative on businesses,” he said — resisting multiple calls on his website to do just that.

But here’s a guy who spends all day every day helping the poor. And even he was surprised at what they’re up against.

“It’s separate worlds,” he said. “There really are different rules for the poor than for you and me.”

Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or

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