Garry Knox, 50, sleeping rough on the streets of Edinburgh, says having a book to read is “like having an extra blanket.”
“It’s like you found a most precious artefact and you’re not going to part with it for love nor money, it means so much to you,” he said.
Yesterday First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and crime writer Ian Rankin helped launch Streetreads, which provides donated good-quality books to rough sleepers, hostel dwellers and families in temporary accommodation in the city.
The project, run by Edinburgh homelessness charity Streetwork, and due to be expanded to Glasgow in the coming months, is the brainchild of Rachel Cowan who started the initiative after meeting a homeless woman in Leith Walk who told her ‘a book sometimes is more important than a meal.”
Cowan, a former professional opera singer, said: “The impact a book can have on a homeless reader is huge.
“Our books are given as a gift and are in excellent or even new condition so our readers know they are getting a present which is given with respect and love.”
As well as books, including some in languages such as Polish, staff and volunteers will offer audio books, literacy support, storytelling workshops and reading glasses which can be collected at a range of locations.
Speaking at the launch at the Scottish Storytelling Centre, Ms Sturgeon who donated two signed copies of ‘Sunset Song’ by Lewis Grassic Gibbon and ‘Americannah’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie , said: “I know how important reading is to me in my everyday life and I struggle to imagine what it would be like not have books and the chance to read.
“Tackling and preventing homelessness is more than just providing a house. Books can help people reconnect with others and give a sense of community again through shared stories and shared enjoyment.
“I love getting lost in a good book so I’m pleased to donate some to Streetreads so others can enjoy them and the Scottish Government is also providing £3,000 to help them reach more vulnerable people.”
Rankin, who is donating copies of his books, including foreign language editions, said: “When you see a homeless person sitting reading a book you can get into a conversation about it.
“Suddenly you see that you’re dealing with a human being, not just a statistic.”
He added: “We need to remember that there are mums with kids homeless too. Literacy begins with the parents and children seeing their parents reading is the first rung in getting a literate society.
“I hope other cultures and societies will be embraced by this fantastic project which started in Edinburgh.”
“Books can transport us anywhere, to times and worlds that excite and stimulate. That’s hugely important, no matter who you are or what your circumstances.”
The charity is also calling out to well-known individuals in the literary world, to become ambassadors and asking the public, to help hand out books, co-ordinate their collection and fundraise.
The launch is being supported by Edinburgh-based investment management firm, Baillie Gifford.