Meet the Edinburgh charity giving literature back to the homeless
Homeless reading

Street Reads provides homeless people with free books

From Social Bite to Union of Genius, many Edinburgh charities and businesses do great work when it comes to feeding our city’s homeless population.

But, as Edinburgh local Rachel Cowan realised, no one can survive on food and water alone.

Rachel’s charitable project Street Reads provides homeless people with free books, everything from young adult fiction to crime thrillers and the classics. The books are donated by private individuals, booksellers, publishers and even the authors themselves.

In the future Rachel hopes to secure transport for Street Reads in order to easily move their books, as well as expanding the scheme further afield to Glasgow and Dundee.

Here she explains more about the project, how it came about and reveals some truly heartwarming stories of human kindness that Street Reads has already helped to bring about.

Hi Rachel. What is the Street Reads project, and how did it come about?

“Street Reads gathers donated books and gives them away to homeless street readers. It’s a no-money project, run by myself with help from friends.

“It began in the spring of 2015. 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.”

Why do you provide books to the homeless instead of food or drinks?

“Many agencies throughout the city run important, well run programmes to feed homeless folk. I heard someone say that because of this, you need never go hungry in Edinburgh. But life should not just be about survival.

“We know that [reading] provides an escape from the hard world in which homeless people live. That it alleviates the crushing boredom that is so much a part of their day. That it keeps their personal identity and self esteem alive.

“The general public are often nervous of talking to a homeless person, but if that person is reading there is an instant connection to be had. A meal will give sustenance for a few hours but a book can refresh the mind and soul forever.”

What kind of books do you deliver?

“We look for books in good condition – the quality is important. If a book isn’t good enough to give to a friend, then it’s not good enough for our homeless readers. We show respect at all times.

“Hardbacks are impractical for readers who are moving around a lot. And a book on company law or How To Keep Goats is unlikely to be popular!

“Novels in languages such as Polish, Russian and Spanish are also welcome – we’d like to offer our foreign homeless readers the comfort of reading in their own language. We aim to give our readers as wide a choice as we can and for our keenest readers, we try our best to source specific titles on their wishlist.”

What can people do to help you and Street Reads?

“Although ‘Give us books’ is the obvious answer, there are many other ways in which people can help. Transporting books is almost impossible without a car – and we don’t have one. So we’ve appealed for occasional drivers to help us out.

“The biggest thing people can do is to give us their time.  After we put out an appeal for folk to help catalogue our books, we were deluged with fantastic librarians! We hope that at least some of these will stay the course, as the book stock is always changing. And although it sounds awfully grand of me – I’d like a general assistant.

“We’ve had tremendous support through social media and we hope that will continue – it really keeps us going.”

What has been your favourite moment so far, in relation to the project?

“There have been so many. One day at the beginning of Street Reads, a guy ran up and down Leith Walk shouting that ‘the book wumman’ had given him the book he’d always wanted to read – a biography of Russell Brand. That moment made my day.

“The French fanbase of the Outlander books (and TV series) rallied when I asked for an Outlander book in French for a reader, and [they] delivered. Social media in wonderful action.

“I told author Mark Haddon of a Polish lady who, because her grandson was autistic, tried to read his book The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, but struggled because her English isn’t great. He sent us a copy of the book in Polish so she might enjoy it better. She was speechless and almost in tears when we told her.

“And one of the earliest times when I realised how powerful social media can be. I asked on Twitter if anyone could spare a few Ian Rankin novels for a mini-library we were putting together in a homeless hostel. We knew that homeless readers just loved his books. Mr Rankin himself replied and sent us his own spare copies. He was the first author to do this and I was bowled over by his generosity. I treasure that moment.”

Follow Street Reads on Facebook and Twitter to keep up to date, or visit the website – streetreads.org

To donate books to Street Reads, you can deliver or send book donations to their storage space at Ocean Terminal.

Address: Street Reads, Community Space, Ocean Terminal, 1st Floor, Ocean Drive, Edinburgh, EH6 6JJ

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Main image: Per Gosche / Flickr / CC