Magazine article The Spectator

Books for the Homeless

Magazine article The Spectator

Books for the Homeless

Article excerpt

An afternoon with a mobile library for rough sleepers

A white van pulls up outside St Giles in the Fields, an imposing 18th century church in central London, around the corner from Tottenham Court Road station, for a couple of hours every Saturday afternoon. St Giles is known as 'The Poets' Church' because it has memorials to Andrew Marvell and George Chapman, but this humble van makes the nickname more fitting. It's a library.

To be homeless is to have no fixed address, which means you can't borrow books from a public library -- but it doesn't mean you've no desire to read. Quaker Homeless Action set up this mobile library in 1999, making runs into London twice a week and lending books to more than a thousand homeless people a year. Borrowers only have to give a first name, which isn't always their real name, and may take out two books for up to two weeks, although only around a third are actually returned.

The van hasn't long been parked when a young man called Noah takes out Split Second , a crime novel by David Baldacci. I ask him why he chose it. He stares at me, startled. 'I'm sorry,' he says, in speech so halting there are almost as many pauses as words. 'I've never been asked that before... I have a lot of prepared responses... People generally say the same things... Nowadays I try not to think about why I do things... You rather live down here than up here.' He points first to his boots, then to his head.

There are around 40 people gathered in the churchyard -- mostly men, in their thirties or early forties, which aligns with what we know about homelessness in London. According to Chain (the Combined Homelessness and Information Network database), six in every seven of the just over 8,000 people who slept rough at some point in London last year were male, and more than half were aged between 26 and 45. There is a wariness in the air: many of the men stand alone and conversation is stilted.

'They might not have spoken to anyone for a while,' says John, one of the volunteers, who explains that the library exists as much to provide access to a friendly face and someone to talk to as to distribute books. 'Even in hostels,' he says, 'you often can't trust the people you're living with, and get robbed.' John has been volunteering for the mobile library for eight and a half years, and before that was homeless and a user of the library himself. The charity Crisis reports that homeless people are significantly more likely to have experienced violence or been robbed than the rest of the population; the lack of conversation begins to make sense.

Ross, whose abundant curly hair is rather greyer than Noah's, is greeted as a regular and sits down beside us, saying little. I notice that one of his carrier bags is from the Book Warehouse, and he thaws slightly when I tell him that I also work in a bookshop. 'I rarely borrow a book,' he says, dismissing the library's collection for not having a big enough history section. Another disappointed borrower, also called John, took a dim view of Frederick Forsyth's The Fourth Protocol . I ask him about his favourite writers, and he becomes increasingly animated as he talks about sci fi, specifically Alastair Reynolds, Olaf Stapledon and George Orwell. In a matter of minutes his reserve has disappeared, so I ask a little about his day to day life. 'I don't have an Oyster card or anything,' he says. 'Wherever I go I walk, so it's more or less the same area, but occasionally I spend a few days in Richmond -- it takes me all day to get there, and a whole day to get back, so I spend a few days there. …

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