Homeless men find shelter in a book club
A Cleveland outreach nurse says there's camaraderie and escape in book discussion.
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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.
"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.