When I first started my campaign to make literature more accessible to those who have been made homeless in London, I got a lot of mixed responses. While some applauded the initiative, others were quick to comment: "Books? Homeless people don't care about reading..."
Comments like those would keep me up at night, mulling over the concept of this new campaign I had launched - the Spread The Word Campaign. We were going to bring libraries to homeless shelters across the city, as well as find ways of reaching out to those who are still on the streets and encourage them to start reading. But maybe I was being too naïve? Maybe those people were right - maybe homeless people didn't care about reading?
As the campaign began to grow I very quickly realised that I wasn't being naïve at all, but rather, it was the people who made those comments who were making generalisations about homelessness. Homeless people could care about reading - but maybe they just haven't been given the choice to read? It was those comments that helped shaped the motto for my campaign: "making literature more accessible to those who have been made homeless..." We weren't going to force books upon anyone; we were simply going to give them the choice to read.
And here's why.
Undoubtedly there's a social stigma attached to the homeless in this country (and perhaps other countries as well) - when people walk by someone sitting on the site of the road, most of us tend to avoid them, often with the presumption that they're drug and/or alcohol addicts. Those who make these presumptions might be right in some instances. I won't deny that there are homeless people who have turned to substance abuse to help them get through the situation they're in. But isn't it a lot easier to fall into the trap of substance abuse when you have nothing else to do? By making literature available to them, we're also making literature an alternative choice.
I don't mean to say that reading books will completely replace alcohol or drugs for someone who is an addict. However, if someone with substance abuse decides to read a book for even one hour of their day, that's one hour they haven't consumed the substance they're addicted to. And that's a start.
But what about those who have been made homeless and aren't suffering from substance abuse? For them, books can have an even greater impact. No matter who you are, reading a book not only opens your mind to new possibilities and ideas, but also allows you to live in the shoes of someone else for a little while - and anyone who has ever gone through a rough patch will know that escaping from your world for a little while can be a refreshing break. At the launch of our first library, it was an incredible moment to overhear one of our clients say that they wish they had a chance to be a part more events like this because it was a brilliant distraction from the daily difficulties they're forced to face.
Those are two reasons why I'm making literature accessible to homeless people in London, but there is one more, one very big reason: books can empower people. Almost all of us have read a book and been given a fresh perspective on a situation, or been given a new idea or inspired to think about something differently. Maybe not always directly, but almost certainly indirectly. Homelessness won't be eradicated if all homeless people start reading - far from it. What books can do, however, is pave a path out of the situation they've found themselves in.
Someone who has been sleeping rough for years might read a book that suddenly gives him or her an idea for a way out of the circumstances they're faced with. They might read about a situation somewhere in the world and find their new passion through it. Or they might even decide that the words they've read are so inspiring, they want to get back on their feet so they can inspire people in their own way.
However you choose to look at it, you can't deny that literature opens doors for a new way of thinking. There are some brilliant charities across the country who are providing homeless people with food and shelter - and the work they're doing is extremely vital. But maybe what's been missing is a way to keep minds stimulated. Many people who have found themselves sleeping on the streets are extremely intelligent individuals whose luck simply ran out. Perhaps what they need is the chance to allow that intellect to resurface. And if we give them that chance, who knows where it could take them?