Book Club for the Homeless: 'Things Worth Discussing'

Caroline McHeffey
Spare Change News

Since last September, I’ve been in touch with the Oasis Coalition, an organization that helps to empower and give a voice to the homeless and poor of Boston. My volunteer work there started through my school, Suffolk University, and I was quickly serving at their Monday night dinners on a weekly basis. Recently my involvement with the organization has landed me a place at the women’s group every Thursday, often reading out bingo numbers. But one part of Oasis, its book club, was always a mystery to me. I realized I should become more familiar with it.

The Oasis Coalition’s Book Club is acclaimed for being the first book club for the homeless in the United States. It was founded about five years ago by two men, Peter Resnik and Rob Day. Peter and Rob have a unique and uncommon friendship that has transformed the lives of many.

Rob, who was homeless when he first met Peter, would spend his days on the Boston Common. Peter, a successful lawyer of Boston, would often pass Rob on the Common and one day decided to initiate a conversation. It wasn’t long before these daily encounters turned into daily conversations.

The friendship led to Peter giving Rob a book he had enjoyed, entitled Water for Elephants. Rob was quick to read the book and even quicker to pass it on to some of his other friends on the Common. Within a short amount of time, multiple of Peter’s favorite titles were circulating among the homeless of Boston. A book club had begun.

The club has had an influence across America as well as internationally, helping to inform the creation of other homeless book clubs. Today, cities such as New York, London, Barcelona, Madison, Wisconsin and many others have their own versions of what began here in Boston. The Oasis Book Club continues to serve as a template for new startups. So much so, in fact, that the organization has made an outline for its club’s model which is accessible on its website so others are able to start their own book clubs with ease.
I decided to attend the book club this past Tuesday without knowing what to expect. I was familiar with the room as it is the same room used for bingo. Three men were sitting around the table with a box of donuts in the middle and a handful of copies of On the Road by Jack Kerouac. Apparently, the beat writer’s most widely read novel was up for discussion that day.

As members were filtering in a few of the early birds eagerly provided me with the inner workings of the club, such as the history, favorite and least favorite books, and how the club still functions five years after its birth.

Ron Tibbets, who has been attending the Book Club since its inception, mentioned that a favorite among the group was Another Bullshit Night in Suck City by Nick Flynn. Flynn’s work, about a young homeless shelter employee in Boston whose father checks in for a bed, was agreeable for the group because of how relevant it was to their lives. As group members trickled in a discussion of On the Road filled the room with energy and liveliness. Opinions and even some light tensions arose during the more heated debates over Dean, one of the main characters. The intellectual vibrance of comments and discussion of the novel surpassed my expectations coming into the room. You’d probably be surprised, too, to find a group of men discussing a feminist approach to the reading of On the Road.

Ned, who has been attending the club since its inception, said he sees importance in the group in that it provides a space where homeless people will be treated “as human beings and not statistics.” Another longtime club-goer described it as a “safe time and a place to express themselves.”

Peter Resnik and Rob Day themselves were there to enjoy coffee and share their feelings on the book with the rest of the group which had varying opinions. Peter was not too fond of the novel while Ned argued that “Kerouac is smart, he’s not just a hipster.” Another man said that the book “worked” for the book club, speaking from his own empathy for the character in jail who wanted to become a writer. Moreover, this man, who was a bit older, was able to remember how energetic he was when he was younger. It reminded him of days that he would stay up all night until sunrise. “I forgot I ever had that much energy,” he said.

Although the book club had a small crowd on the day that I attended (and for some reason all male), I was happily surprised with the intellectual debates, references, and overall openness that the group radiates. I was able to witness the value in a book club for the homeless. Feeling a sense of worth attached to one’s own opinion is often what is lacking in a homeless persons life (or anyone’s life for that matter) as well as a safe space to express it.

The Book Club meets at the Church on the Hill every Tuesday from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m.

CAROLINE McHEFFEY is a Spare Change News writer and editor.

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