A guest post from Rachel Cowan, Founder, Street Reads
It was Spring 2015 in Edinburgh. I met a homeless girl and we began a conversation that continues to this day. She told me that lots of homeless people read. And she told me something startling – that sometimes, a book can be more precious than a meal. That it provides an escape from the hard world in which homeless people live. That it alleviates the crushing boredom that is so much part of their day. That it keeps their personal identity and self esteem alive – when you’re reading a book, you are truly yourself without the cruel labels that society may place on you.
Once, a long time ago, I had an episode of very poor health and was made temporarily homeless. I was fortunate to receive good care and to be housed in a safe, comfortable place. But I still remember the feeling of being lost, of being outside ‘normal’ society. Now, all these years later, here was a way of giving back – through books.
I’d found out through my homeless friend when the Care Van, which supplies sandwiches and a hot drink at lunchtime, came to that location and I set up an old painting table at a pop-up venue police box with donated books. And I gave them away to the guys.
Hauling books back and forth was physically demanding and at the time, my health and mobility were very poor. I walked – slowly – with two sticks and had the fitness level of a 90 year old. It became clear that I couldn’t physically carry on and with sinking heart, I decided to pause the project. I had to effect changes in myself that would enable me to help others. Telling ‘my’ readers was hard. I felt I had let them down. But I promised that I’d be back. Somehow, sometime.
April 2016. A lot of hard work over many months meant I returned to Street Reads a stronger, more mobile person ready to try to make a difference to homeless readers’ lives.
I began volunteering at an initiative called Soul Food where St Paul’s & St George’s church fed over 100 people on a Saturday evening. I talked to their clergy about Street Reads. They already had a bookcart, but it contained almost no books that anyone wanted to read and it wasn’t managed. I took it on and we now give out about 25 books every Saturday.
I struck a deal with Settlement Projects, who had donated the very first books last year. They generously agreed to support the project and allowed me to cherry pick their huge selection of books. This was invaluable.
We’re now attached to half a dozen homeless projects around the city and are thrilled to be providing books to their guests.
Recently, I met with the team at Better World Books in Dunfermline. After I had the tour of their amazing premises, we talked about how they might help Street Reads. And I am absolutely thrilled that they are going to support us by book donation. The first four boxes arrived the other day and are a great mix of children’s books, thrillers and general fiction and an occasional off-the-wall title – ‘Breakfast With The Borgias’ anyone?
And now it’s time to confess. If you’ve followed us on Twitter or Facebook, you’ll have noticed the use of the royal ‘we’ when referring to the Street Reads project. You may then have wondered why this blog post keeps straying into the first person.
Here’s the deal. Although I have a good friend who helps me out when she can, for which I’m immensely grateful, almost everything about Street Reads is done by me. Rachel. The book wumman. Social media? Me. Graphics? Me. Email? Me. Picking up and delivering donated books? Me, with occasional help. You get the idea.
This is a problem. I’m not young, I live in a small flat with no storage space for books and I have no transport except my senior citizen’s bus pass! There’s only so much one person can do. And I’m beginning to struggle, I really am.
Now in case you didn’t realise, there’s one thing about Street Reads that needs saying. We have no funding. Nada. Zilch. No benefactors except our wonderful book donors. We don’t take any money from anyone for doing what we do.
So. I need help! Solid practical help. I’ve appealed on social media for a pool of drivers to occasionally volunteer for us – you really can’t take 50 or more books in carrier bags on the bus – believe me, I’ve tried! I haven’t had one offer of a driver 🙁
I need clean, dry accessible storage. Ideally, I’d like it to contain bookcases so I can assess and distribute the books. I need able bodied folk to pick up donated books/boxes that are sent to our postal address at the Settlement Projects.
I’m more than happy to go on doing everything, but it’s not realistic and I would end up failing the very people I’m trying to help.
Without help, Street Reads cannot carry on the dream of giving more than 100 street readers as many books as they want. We live in a wealthy city and I know that people are at heart kind and generous. We’re not asking for money, just practical help (a bit of emotional support never goes amiss either, to be honest!).
If you are interested in helping Rachel and becoming part of the Street Reads story please email [email protected].