Portland and Austin’s Street Books wins award, keeps pulling that rope

It was February 10, with temperatures around freezing, under the Hawthorne bridge in downtown Portland. A few dozen homeless people shivered and shuffled, grabbing a plate of hot food from a church “feed,” or a paperback from Street Books, a nonprofit that put out a selection on several folding tables.

“I just look for a simple read,” said Cora, whose learning disability didn’t stop her from grabbing a copy of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” “If I don’t have anything to do, at least I have a book to read.”

Cora with her prizes, No Cats Allowed and To Kill A Mockingbird, next to Laura Moulton and a table full of Street Books offerings, on a day so cold Moulton might almost be dancing. Photo by Thacher Schmid

Nothing about the situation was OK, really. Then again, everything was. It was almost too cold to hold a pen. How to concentrate on a book?

The Eastbank Esplanade, the bike-pedestrian path nearby, was closed for construction. A man named Mike said it was “to defoliate to make it harder for homeless to camp.”

A Street Books volunteer named Autumn Werner was undeterred, by the cold, the construction, or the destitution.

“I’m doing this for the pure joy of it,” she said.

For homeless folks pushed to the fringes of tech-happy Portland and Austin, the digital divide is very real: many don’t have a smart phone, or even any phone, much less a tablet, laptop or desktop with web access. At the same time, America has millions of books, from hardcover to paperback, that are becoming extraneous: dumped at Goodwills, left in sad, unloved “little libraries” on a parking strip near you.

But for someone with no home, but lots of trouble, literacy and time, a Louis L’amour paperback or a little poetry can be vital as food. The original Portland incarnation Street Books nonprofit is now in its eighth year, with a new sister organization in Austin that just won an award from South x Southwest.

Portland-based founder Laura Moulton says the project is unique. “When we have a problem, we go to email other street libraries, and it’s crickets,” the down-to-earth leader of seven says. “There’s no one to say ‘here’s what we’ve found.’”

At Austin’s most recent South X Southwest music festival, the head of the Austin sister organization, Patrick Crowley, was given a Community Service Award. Crowley, a man with a big white beard, black horn rims and a straw hat, has 31 years of sobriety and says books are the best way to “expand community.”

Many in Austin’s homeless population of 2,147 call him “Bookman.”

He started the Austin sister organization because, he says, “We don’t need more people to talk about how to pull the rope, we need more people on the rope.”

“We don’t need more people to talk about how to pull the rope, we need more people on the rope.”

“I’ve seen this pattern repeated many times: as we design these perfect cities on the hill, we basically bury those people that helped to support the city,” he says. “Those on the lower ends of the socioeconomic spectrum, they’re pushed to the periphery.”

Mike Logan, a homeless man at the Portland event, told a reporter he often reads in his tent, but it’s not easy.

“Sleeping rough can be quite the deterrent toward reading,” Logan noted. But it helps him battle through tough times: “I firmly believe that reading books constitutes a very useful offset to addiction issues.”

While a 2011 New York Times story drew a parallel between Portland Street Books and the Multnomah County library system—which has the fourth-highest circulation in the U.S.—the link is tenuous.

People without a fixed address, an I.D. or money for transportation or paying fines often have trouble borrowing books.

Plus, libraries want their books back. Street Books, on the other hand, appears to be partly a vehicle for donating books.

“We know [books] ain’t all coming back,” says Hodge, aka Ben Hodgson, a Portland board member who was once homeless. “If we get a 30 percent return rate, we know we’re doing good.”

Street Books offers up books (and reading glasses) with a gentle request of a return — and a commitment to finding special requests. “I always return them,” Logan says.

In a space filled with books, a writer feels instinctively at ease. One might think that the news media would write lots of stories about successes like Street Books, but often, the beleaguered industry prioritizes stories about poverty that are sensational in nature.

A fire? A stabbing? A camp being displaced? The news media is on it.

Reading? It ain’t that bloody. In fact, reading—especially, reading books, which lack ads or video capability or interactive clicking—is arguably the opposite of the militant veins that run so strongly through American culture, from our military’s building of nuclear-capable weaponry to hate-filled racists killing innocents in El Paso, Texas or Gilroy, California.

What Street Books is doing is actually working, one might say, and therefore not news.

Weeelllll, to quote one of the older books on the planet, the Bible, “there’s nothing new under the sun.”

Another saying that could be relevant, from even-older scrolls of Buddhism: “Abandon any hope of fruition.”

Moulton in Portland and Crowley in Austin appear to be quietly doing something remarkable: helping the poorest, most destitute people in the two cities by giving them a simple pleasure that entertains, offers dignity, and teaches.

Not that it’s easy for them. This is a labor of love, this is time and money spent, this is sweat equity. Asked if her book offerings are curated, Moulton’s response was an astonished, “Hell yes, it’s curated!”

After a reporter climbed over a fence to get around a locked gate to get to the tiny nonprofit’s space inside the St. Francis Park Apartments, a new affordable housing development built on the site of a park that used to be a frequent resting and camping place for local houseless folks, some of the first words out of Moulton’s mouth were about choosing books.

And race. And, perhaps, the ways in which the publishing industry’s time-honored history of racist screeds reflects the kinds of bullshit so frequently projected in Twitter, Reddit, Facebook and many other online spaces.

“Any time you find a story of the ghetto written by a white person, put it over here and we’ll use it for tinder,” Moulton proclaimed. It wasn’t clear if she was joking or not, or if she’s read a light-skinned writer named Alice Goffman’s amazing and amazingly controversial recent work of sociology about darker-skinned Philadelphians, On The Run.

What was clear was that she wants to share good books.

“We are not just a service,” Moulton says, “this is an art project at its origin.” It exists in part due to help from the Catholic Charities and the Regional Arts and Culture Council.

Sometimes, Moulton admits, Street Books volunteers run into a basic problem: knowing who its customers are. The nonprofit is set up to serve books to people that are marginalized and needy, Moulton says, but it’s not always clear who that is.

Trying to figure out whether a potential client is actually houseless can be “really weird and awkward,” Moulton says. Once or twice, the Portland crew has given books to one guy that “fleeces” them, Moulton admits. “He knows what’s going to sell,” she says.

An image from Patrick Crowley’s e-signature

On February 10, Rebecca Cottrell said she slept outside in 20-degree temperatures the night before. “This outside world is getting pretty old for me,” Cottrell said. She doesn’t go to the library due to lack of transportation, she said, and she defines her situation with a motto derived from one of the greatest books by an American writer, Joseph Heller’s classic Catch-22.

“You don’t qualify at this end, you don’t qualify at that end, so where do you go?”

Well, sometimes you might go to a book, which won’t judge you, won’t deceive you, but will offer you solace, entertainment and knowledge.

“I always return them,” Logan said of his frequent borrowed books from Street Books. “I go through a minimum of one a week, if not two.”

Like Cottrell, Logan feels a certain amount of betrayal by the Portland social service and affordable housing system. He tells tales of bedbugs and mice in publicly-subsidized units he’s rented, and losing a housing voucher after a new manager “didn’t like me.”

Logan speaks to what is perhaps the most nuanced, and important aspect of what Street Books does: by nourishing the inner life of often highly-literate people who are homeless, the group creates hope, and sanity, and changes perceptions.

“The stereotypes need to be broken down,” Logan says. “[People] need to stop thinking that everyone who is homeless is a drug addict or alcoholic or mentally ill. It’s not true. Reading shows that.”

Werner, the volunteer, says that the books she brought in February were the ones people requested the month before: poetry, Michael Crichton, Dean Koonce, James Patterson.

“I want something that people can recognize themselves in,” Moulton says. But there are pitfalls. So Charles Bukowski’s not appropriate for someone living on the street who’s battling addiction? “Year two, I might have been running around trying to give people Bukowski,” Moulton says. “Now I see that was naive.”

Moulton’s learned that even as words can comfort the afflicted, in rare instances, a book like The Color Purple can retrigger past trauma.

The smell of marijuana drifted across the books, laid out in neat rows on folding tables by Moulton and Werner and others.

“I think anything goes well with cannabis,” Roxana Rose said. She said she’s been in and out of homelessness for three years, and for awhile was half-living at a local 24-hour coffeehouse. She grabbed a copy of the “ABC of Anarchism” by Alexander Berkman. Then “Of Mice and Men.”

She was the second person at the Feb. 10 feed and book share to mention getting help from Catholic Charities, Street Books’ landlord and benefactor.

Why is she homeless?

“I refuse to compromise my self-respect or dignity,” she said.

She plans to return to future book shares. “I think it’s the best healthy mental escape you can find.”

Portland’s Street Books nonprofit began as nothing but a cargo bicycle, but has expanded to a small storefront-sized space with a couple couches and a coffeemaker. In Austin, Crowley says his plan for this summer includes adding a “sun umbrella,” some new donation locations and working on a documentary.

In Portland, city Commissioner Chloe Eudaly—herself a former bookseller—declared May 23 to be “Street Books Day.” But Eudaly’s Facebook post garnered ten negative comments before Street Books’s thank-you.

We shouldn’t be surprised. People living on the streets of this concrete jungle don’t have much time to spend on social media—many of them have no cell phone at all, and of those that do, few can afford data plans, and all struggle to find a time or place to charge them.

See a mistake? Have a reaction or tip? Email thachmid [at] gmail.com.

We are all poor due to the broken social safety net in the United States, the world’s richest nation. Portfolio, bio, contact: ThacherSchmid.com

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