Reading between the lines

By Alexandra Hurley

If you found yourself homeless, or without a stable living situation, what is the thing you would miss the most? Waking up to breakfast every morning, or a hot shower? Maybe it is not having access to the internet, or a phone?

Something you may have overlooked is access to books and reading.

Currently, 1 in 200 people in Australia are homeless, and 575,000 children are currently living below the poverty line.

Sarah Garnett had an idea. This idea has meant for the last ten years homeless people throughout Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane have not been completely forgotten. She founded the Footpath Library in 2003. The Footpath Library is a service that collects donated books from publishers and the public, and gives them to those who don’t have access to good quality reading material, normally via a library van full of books.

It all began when Sarah was volunteering with a group serving meals to homeless and disadvantaged people in Sydney’s CBD. One evening, Sarah noticed a man sitting under a streetlight reading a novel while waiting for the food van. She started bringing him a few books, and it was from this humble beginning that the original The Benjamin Andrew Footpath Library grew. His name was Joe, and Sarah says he is still a regular visitor to the Sydney library, after ten years. “Joe is our most loyal customer, and still takes two to three books a week.”

The Footpath Library now has libraries in Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane, with plans to expand across Australia. It’s supported by a dedicated group of more than seventy volunteers. The main Libraries are located in Sydney, with the Martin Place library operating once a week, and the Manly library meeting once a month. The libraries in Melbourne differ from their Sydney counterparts. Melbourne does not have a regular library service, instead operating in a manner that responds to demand. Sarah currently oversees 80 libraries in homeless hostels, refuges, shelters and community organisations in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne. This is in addition to the two regular libraries in Sydney. Over 2000 books a month are given to readers from the libraries. Sarah noted that whilst the mobile services are important as they offer face-to-face interaction with the customers, they do not represent the majority of their operations.

Sarah describes that it is a fairly consistent group of readers – “Over the years the number of people coming to talk has increased and we have noticed social interaction amongst our customers has increased as they have become regulars and comfortable in each other’s company.” The most popular books are novels, in particular thrillers, crime, biographies, fantasy, science fiction. Self-help is also in high demand, as are National Geographic magazines, and history. About 12 regulars visit the mobile service at Martin Place in Sydney, with others dropping in. “Many of them may not talk to anyone all day, or all week so it is very important for them. They also come along to talk to our volunteers.”

Homelessness is an issue that is all too often overlooked in our society. It is important that people who find themselves homeless are not ostracised from the rest of the community. “Homeless people are just like you and me,” says Sarah, “many of them have had a stable upbringing, good education and career.” Homelessness is not a condition a person is born with, but occurs due to situational change, such as sudden unemployment, relationship breakdowns or ill health. The Footpath Library would like society to have a better understanding of homeless people and the factors that can cause someone to be without a stable living situation.

The Footpath Library’sparticipants have interacted with the books in a lot of different ways. Some of the Footpath Library’s readers have been able to return to study. Others have been able to read a book for the first time cover to cover, written their own stories or poetry, diversified their reading genre and started volunteering for other services. An great example of this is a 12 year old girl, who Sarah and the Footpath Library were able to a place in a boarding school in Sydney. This girl has since continued her studies, and has recently left year 11 and is studying a business degree, as well as working full-time for a chiropractor in the city.

Engaging with people who are homeless over the ten years the library has been operating, Sarah has noticed some changes in the reasons people find themselves without a home. One example she gives is the rising cost of rent. She has found that more families are relying on homeless services. Other factors remain consistent contributors to homelessness, such as marriage breakdown, unemployment, gambling and other addictions. Sarah added that mental illness continues to be a huge contributing factor as well. She explained that ever since patients have been abandoned by in-care services, the number of people with serious mental health issues living in an insecure form of accommodation has risen.

Sarah and the Footpath Library aim to establish libraries in Canberra and Perth within the next 12 months. They are recruiting footpath librarians in regional areas who will be responsible for installing libraries in hostels there. Sarah also hopes to enlist local councils and libraries in regional areas to take more responsible for providing good quality literature to the marginalised members of their communities.

To donate book or volunteer your time and become involved with the Footpath Library in Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane you can visit the Footpath Library website.