Edinburgh Street Reads project helps homeless turn the page

Rachel Cowan established Street Reads to offer free books homeless individuals in Edinburgh, and hopes to expand the project across Scotland. Picture: Julie Bull/TSPL
Rachel Cowan established Street Reads to offer free books homeless individuals in Edinburgh, and hopes to expand the project across Scotland. Picture: Julie Bull/TSPL
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A former professional opera singer who donates books to homeless people in
Edinburgh is aiming to expand her project across Scotland after winning praise from authors and publishers alike.

Rachel Cowan established Street Reads as a simple way of offering compassionate
support to people from all backgrounds who find
themselves without a permanent roof over their heads.

Rachel Cowan of Street Reads. Picture: Julie Bull

Rachel Cowan of Street Reads. Picture: Julie Bull

She began by donating second-hand books to individuals and now distributes reading materials to a variety of social enterprises and hostels across the capital.

Since launching full-time in May, the project has handed out around 250 books and aims to surpass 1,000 by the end of the year.

Street Reads has been backed by leading city authors such as Ian Rankin and publishers Canongate, who have donated several titles of their own.

“Feeding and clothing the homeless is done very well by lots of organisations in every city,” explained Rachel. “Giving someone a book is not a luxury, as some people think.

“Being homeless is a very lonely business. Giving a book offers the chance to escape into another world.”

Rachel, who grew up in Fife, moved to Edinburgh in 2014 after retiring from English National Opera.

She was inspired to launch Street Reads after meeting a homeless woman on Leith Walk in spring 2015.

“One day I noticed she was reading, and as a keen reader myself, I asked her how important books were to her,” Rachel said.

“She told me she sometimes thought books were more important than food. That was the spark that got me
thinking.”

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Street Reads has built partnerships with established projects in the capital which help homeless individuals, including Social Bite and Street Works.

She is also in the process of establishing a small library for Cunningham House, a hostel in the Cowgate.

“Homeless folk are just folk like you and me – what they read reflects what everyone else reads,” Rachel added.

“There are issues with literacy. The very first guy I offered a book to said: ‘Ah cannie read, hen’. I’m hoping that’s something we can help with.

“But at the other end, I know one man who reads Dostoyevsky, Kafka and Proust.”

Sara Sheridan, the Edinburgh-based author of the Mirabelle Bevan series, is among the professional writers to offer her support to the project.

“I first met Rachel online a few years ago and when she set up Street Reads I thought it was a brilliant idea,” Sara said.

“Homelessness is dehumanising and Street Reads combats that by looking beyond the immediate needs of the people it helps. It’s very worthwhile.”

Rachel now plans to establish Street Reads on a more formal platform to allow her to expand the project further afield.

“It’s becoming clear I need to move towards becoming a registered charity and bring more volunteers on board, as at the minute it’s just me,” she said.

“My ambition is that any homeless reader in Scotland can get books if they want one.

“But I need to consolidate in Edinburgh first. My idea is to have a cargo bike, full of bikes, which I can take out across the city.

“I’m always looking for donations – but I do ask they are paperbacks, and in reasonable condition.”

For details on how to make donations, visit Street Reads online.