Books for all

“Books? Homeless people don’t care about reading…”

That was the response that Priyanka Mogul got when she told people that she was starting a campaign to make literature more accessible to those who are homeless in London.

To begin with, Priyanka wondered whether the criticisms were valid. In an article she wrote for the Huffington Post, she confides that she was kept up at night by the thought that she was being naive, that her efforts wouldn’t help. But as her campaign built up steam, she found out that these generalisations were groundless. It became clear that people who were homeless cared as much about literature as anyone, but had less access to books. This realisation shaped the motto for Priyanka’s campaign, Spread the Word: making literature more accessible to those who have been made homeless.

Why does literature help people who are homeless? Priyanka gives several reasons. For those suffering from substance abuse, while books won’t offer a quick fix, an hour spent reading every day is an hour spent not using drugs. Literature can provide an escape from the pressures of homelessness that isn’t damaging or debilitating. For people who aren’t suffering from substance abuse, reading can also provide a harmless diversion, a break from being misunderstand and ignored by the rest of society.

Literature can give people facing homelessness opportunities to experience different situations, different ways of thinking. Literature can help you to see the world from a new perspective, to live many different lives vicariously. This can enable someone facing homelessness to come up with new ideas about how to achieve goals and deal with setbacks. When you’re homeless, getting food, shelter, and keeping down or looking for a job is a daily trial, and requires a great deal of resolve. Literature can open up new ways of tackling familiar situations.

Literature can also bring people together. You can share your feelings about a book with others, and this communication is vital to reducing the sense of isolation that homelessness produces. Spread the Word aims to bring people together through literature by bringing libraries to homeless shelters, and encouraging people sleeping rough to start reading.

I may be biased here, since I love reading and writing, but I’m a strong believer in the power of literature. I’m not denying the importance of food and shelter, there are many brilliant charities in the UK doing their utmost to provide people with those necessities including New Hope. But we can’t live by bread alone, and whether you’re homeless or not you require mental stimulation.

To this end, New Hope has a fortnightly poetry group that meets at our Community Market Garden. Service users and volunteers get together, read and discuss poetry in a relaxed and informal way. They can read poetry or prose that they’ve written, or read from literature that has personally inspired them. Discussions about the readings often lead to conversations about wider issues from philosophy to current events. Participants find it enjoyable and stimulating, and invariably find themselves coming back. It also impresses on people the importance of listening to and respecting the opinions of others. There are regular open days at the garden, so you might want to check them out.

The idea that people who are homeless don’t care about reading, either because they’re not clever or motivated enough, is not just incorrect but dangerous. If people who find themselves in the situation of losing their home don’t have the confidence to believe in their own ingenuity and determination, then escaping homelessness will be much more daunting.

Spread the Word only began in March of this year, but in that short time it has gained notoriety. You can read more about Spread the Word here, and can get involved in a number of ways, such as donating books. I’m excited to see how Priyanka’s campaign will grow over time. Hopefully, Spread the Word will mark a new chapter in homelessness support services.

Alex Charlton