Homeless men find shelter in a book club

A Cleveland outreach nurse says there's camaraderie and escape in book discussion.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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    Donna Kelly: A Cleveland outreach nurse finds that men on the street open up more freely when discussing book characters who are at a crossroad.
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    Page turner: A homeless men's book group provides camaraderie and escape in such books as 'Angela's Ashes.'
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    Page turner: A homeless men’s book group provides camaraderie and escape. A Cleveland outreach nurse finds that men on the street open up more freely when discussing book characters who are at a crossroad.
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Every Monday at 4 p.m., Stephen King fans gather at 2100 Lakeside Men's Shelter. So do readers of Louis L'Amour, James Baldwin, and Malcolm X.

One recent afternoon, they spotted fellow King devotee Donna Kelly as she rounded the corner by the front desk. They followed her down a brightly lit hallway to a locked room, where she dropped her cases of sodas and snacks before backtracking to the shelter office to find a key and announce the start of the book club over the public address system.

Newcomer Marc Zak, a young man wearing thick glasses and work boots, waited outside the door, eager to start talking about books.

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"That's all I do," said Mr. Zak who has been at the shelter for two months and favors mysteries, science fiction, and adventure titles. "I just read."

At a time when book-reading is declining and is especially low among poorer people according to a recent Associated Press-Ipsos poll, the book club at 2100 Lakeside seems ill-fated. But, while 1 in 4 people polled admitted to having read no books in 2006, homeless men here are reading two a month.

The books are supplied by the Cleveland Public Library which has partnered with Ms. Kelly's employer, Care Alliance, a health care provider for the homeless. Kelly, an outreach nurse, began the club last fall after noticing how many homeless men brought books to the health clinic she helped run in the shelter's cafeteria.

At first, she simply worried about reading-related health issues – thinking a man with large-print books needed glasses, for instance. But when Kelly talked to the homeless about the books they were reading, they seemed to trust her more. They opened up to her about the drugs, the past abuse, and other things they may not have told her otherwise.

Kelly has found that the men are more open to counsel on health-related topics, such as how to talk to a doctor, when it relates to the experience of a character in a book they love. Sometimes, the book club has spurred its members to make more significant changes. For instance, during a book club field trip to hear an author's talk, one man acknowledged his alcohol problem and said he was ready to see a counselor.

"Sometimes healthcare isn't just about passing out pills," says Kelly. "It's about having a continuing relationship with my patients."

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Some men dropped by the book club for the free snacks and left, but most grabbed a metal folding chair and sat around the circle talking books as if they were in a college seminar instead of the city's packed, 350-bed homeless shelter.

"We love books," said Willie Griggs, who has had heart surgery and walks with a cane. "We don't have a TV we can carry around with us."

Instead of watching TV in one of the living areas, called "communities," 15 men came to talk about Frank McCourt's "Angela's Ashes." The room was warm, but most didn't take off their coats. Some even kept their hats and scarves on while munching Doritos and sipping diet soda.

Only a few had begun reading the McCourt book, and more wanted to talk about an earlier choice, "Is Bill Cosby Right? (Or Has the Black, Middle Class Lost its Mind?)" by Michael Eric Dyson.

"I disagreed with Bill Cosby initially, but what he said bore out," said Richard Albarr, whose black middle-class roots show in his sporty zip-up collar as well as in his opinion. "You're a homeless bum. You're a crackhead. If it's true, it hurts."

But Cosby had more critics than sympathizers. Donald Lewis, a young African-American man, summed up Cosby's sentiment as "bashing the black race."

"What do you think Martin Luther King would have said to Bill Cosby after his speech?" Kelly asked.

"He would have slapped him," said Donald Sanders, still bundled in his blue hat and coat. "No more nonviolent after that."

Laughter ripped through the room.

Some readers eschew book clubs because they don't want to dissect the magic of a book or have their opinions dwarfed by a few boisterous personalities hung up on tired themes. While a few homeless men sometimes dominated the discussion, everyone got a chance to speak. And there were no clichés. Some book club members have been to jail and others to college. Along with book chat, they have revealed pasts that contain enough despair – abuse, addiction, poverty, loss – to fill a thousand novels.

Kelly has noticed that participants "pick the place where the character is at the crossroads." They know they're at the same point, and they're trying to get someplace better.

The book club offers camaraderie and escape, which has awakened in some a new love for reading. Mr. Lewis, who said he taught himself to read, runs to the dictionary every time he gets to a word he doesn't understand. Dudley Peterson, a book club regular, reads constantly, even when he's walking down the street. Jawann Hall, a 22-year-old writer who is 15 chapters into his autobiography, often gets inspired to write about his own life after book club.

"I did use cocaine. I've been shot at," Mr. Hall said. "I have to put it out there."

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The book fervor is catching. A new book club has started at Joseph's Home, a shelter for homeless men recently discharged from hospitals or with other serious health problems. And Kelly is working on starting another at a shelter for homeless women and children.

Kelly tries to bring health literacy into every meeting without disrupting the excitement generated by discussing the books. But for Merce Robinson, literacy coordinator for the Cleveland Public Library, it's just a book club.

"This [book] club is no different than any other," she says. "We're connecting people with books and giving them an opportunity to express themselves about what they're reading."

Indeed the intellectual aspects – not the practical ones – may be the main draw.

At the end of the recent 2100 Lakeside book club meeting, no one asked Kelly, "When can I see a doctor?" Or, "Where can I get a job?"

They asked, "When do we get more books?"

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