This is an open letter to the many supporters of Streetreads, its donors and volunteers, and the many readers who relied on this amazing project. Between July and November Streetreads let a lot of people down. I write the following not to shame the organisation that took over Streetreads, but to highlight the lessons that MUST be learned if this vital, and we’ll say it - life saving - project of bringing books to homeless readers is to be sustainably delivered.
In the summer of 2017, I met the founder of Streetreads - the bookwumman, aka Rachel. Streetreads did a simple thing. It gave free books to readers who were homeless - and it did so with respect and love. The bookwumman was a passionate reader who saw a need and answered it.
In September 2017, Rachel and a small army of volunteers built what became known as the bookcave in the basement of our bookshop. Book donations came from readers everywhere - from a single Rankin paperback to Polish-language novels and even comics like the Beano. These were painstakingly sorted, catalogued and shelved by genre. Batches of specially chosen books were handpicked to go to the guys she’d meet at soup kitchens and foodbanks across Edinburgh.
Streetreads was emotionally and physically demanding to run and Rachel wasn’t young. Despite her own fragile mental health and physical disability, the bookwumman kept going as long as she possibly could but by the spring of 2018, her health was declining. So as to save Streetreads and honour her commitment to her homeless readers, she reached out to homeless charities in Edinburgh, asking who might take over the running of Streetreads. Simon Community answered the call with gusto, with enthusiasm, with good intentions and promises a-plenty.
Late in June, an agreement was reached that Simon Community, acting through Streetwork, would take over the management of Streetreads, leaving Rachel to do what she did best – being the Bookwumman. That was the plan.
But then began a long delay which hit homeless readers and Rachel hard. Readers who had come to trust and rely on the Bookwumman received no books, and no answers. Streetreads just stopped appearing and nobody knew why.
Despite asking repeatedly when books would go out again, the response was vague promises of ‘creative new direction’, ‘expanding impact’. As the months went by, Streetwork had everything needed to commence delivery of the project. But September came and went with still no books going out. The readers told Rachel how angry and distressed they were and how let down they felt. Those books had meant so much to them.
In October, four months after the initial agreement, Streetwork hosted a glitzy ‘launch’ for Streetreads as one of their own projects. Rachel had hoped this would finally mean action, so despite her limited mobility and high social anxiety she went along. Nicola Sturgeon and Ian Rankin both spoke warmly on the occasion, celebrating Rachel’s spirit and commitment, both speaking of how important books were. After the launch, books were still not going out and the bookwumman felt she had to act. She filled boxes of books on 15 November and took them out to her readers.
Rachel wrote to Streetwork the next day, expressing her pain and anger on behalf of her readers. I include a copy of that email below because it shows how she never stopped championing her readers, how for her the whole endeavour was only ever about getting books to those who needed them. She always insisted that should come first.
A few days later, almost 5 months to the day, Streetwork finally delivered books.
Over a year after we first met the bookwumman, that inspiring woman is housebound and deeply troubled. So much unnecessary damage has been done to the readers and to Rachel. None of them have received an apology for the distress caused by the mismanagement of this handover. Though her health was already fragile, I have no doubt that it was Streetwork’s failure to deliver on their promises that caused the total breakdown of Rachel’s health. Despite the fact she could not have done anything more, she still feels responsible for Streetreads not getting books into the hands of her homeless readers.
I restate, I hope that these failures are behind us, books have started going back out to some of the old recipients. I have no wish to embarrass Streetwork, rather I hope this public letter will encourage them to actually acknowledge and apologise for what went wrong so that it doesn’t happen again.
Put simply, readers must be treated with respect and dignity at all times. Should there be a break in service, readers should be informed why and for how long. The service should be delivered not only efficiently but with thoughtfulness and compassion.
Importantly, I’ve written to set the record straight about our friend Rachel and to hope that she can start to recover.
In solidarity, Mairi
Rachel’s email from Nov 16th: