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Homeless men find shelter in a book club

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

(Page 2 of 2)

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.

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"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."

• • •

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?"