October 13, 2014

Charity brings books to the homeless in Portland


A nonprofit in Portland is bringing books to "people living outside." ©Dave Newman / via Shutterstock

A nonprofit in Portland is bringing books to “people living outside.”
©Dave Newman / via Shutterstock

A nonprofit group in Portland, Oregon has taken it upon itself to bring literature to the homeless, Kirk Johnson writes for the New York Times. Street Books, founded in 2011 by Laura Moulton, takes advantage of the city’s passion for reading and sends librarians on bikes to bring books to “people living outside,” as Moulton puts it.

Johnson relates a story about Moulton hearing about a homeless man who had his backpack stolen, along with a copy of a Barbara Kingsolver novel he’d been engrossed in. When Moulton found out, she got a copy of the book and set out to find the man, whom she only knew by his first name, Daniel. When she couldn’t find him personally, she handed off the book, Prodigal Summer, to a Street Books patron, Laura King, who offered to pass it along; and Moulton’s librarians instincts kicked in. “You ought to read it in the meantime,” she told King.

Street Books is bolstered by the fact that Portland is such a literary town. Its county library has the third-highest circulation in the country, behind New York and King County in Seattle; no small feat considering Portland and Multnomah County’s comparative size. And local citizens have voted to increase library funding three elections in a row.

Moulton raised the money to start Street Books via Kickstarter, exceeding her $4,000 goal by more than $1,000, and she received a $1,000 grant from the Awesome Foundation, an organization that gives grants to projects in the arts and sciences. The librarians, who receive $60 for a three-hour shift on a bike, fill their carts with books based on their own tastes, as well as what they know their patrons are looking for. There’s no return policy, so people are mostly on the honor system, with Johnson describes as “a kind of when-you-are-done-reading, next-time-we-meet handshake agreement.”

While the whole enterprise sounds like something that could have come right out of Portlandia, Diana Rempe — a community psychologist who takes a bike for a shift once a week — explains that “It’s not just a little novelty act — ‘Oh, that’s so Portland and cute,’” and that “taking books to the streets, she said, sends the message that poor and marginalized people are not so different from the ‘us’ that defines the educated, literate mainstream of the city, whether in its hipsters, computer geeks or bankers.”

Rempe says that while the project is perfect for such a literary city, the altruism “transcends the bookish culture of Portland.”


Nick Davies was a publicist at Melville House.