For the homeless, taking shelter -- in a book

When I appear at the fence of the Glendale homeless shelter with my rolling suitcase, I hear cries of “It’s the book lady” or, if I’m with my daughter, “It’s the book ladies; let them in!”

At that point, we are allowed to cut to the front of the line and pass through the gate without being wanded or searched. We then head for a table in the hall where we empty our suitcase and spread out our books.

Since I’m on the board of the Friends of the Glendale Public Library, I collect most of the books I bring from the red-dot, super-sale bookshelf at the library. These are donated books that no one purchased at the library’s sale.

I also tell neighbors and friends that I am collecting gently used books for the homeless.

The response has been ... interesting. One friend, an otherwise intelligent person, dropped off a bag of glossy, hardcover coffee-table books. One that sticks in my mind was about Roman Polanski. What is a person who trudges through life like a hermit crab, with everything he owns on his back, supposed to do with 10 pounds of Polanski?


Other friends have asked me what kinds of books the homeless like, which is kind of like asking what kind of books tall people, or redheads, like.

“I assume,” one friend said, “that they want easy, escapist stuff?”

Another said: “I don’t think I have the right kind of books for homeless people.”

This year, the Glendale shelter moved from near downtown to a funky industrial side street of concrete and cyclone wire. It has a 77-bed capacity, and it’s first-come, first-served, which means that if you are the 78th to arrive, you lose.

As the lucky 77 souls enter each evening, they pass through security, which is handled by volunteers; then they sign in, and then they walk past my table.

At the beginning of the season — yes, there is a season for Glendale’s homeless shelter, which operates only during the three months assumed to be the coldest — I spent the whole time calling out “FREE BOOKS!” to everyone who came by.

Now most of them know the drill. Some march right past, in a hurry to sign up for showers and get their cots. Others say they are satisfied with their Bibles. But many fall upon my book offerings as if they’ve been offered a feast.

One guy snaps up all the science fiction he can; another is always on the lookout for nonfiction science. One woman asks for poetry but needs large print because she has lost her glasses. As a glasses wearer myself, the idea of moving through the day without seeing clearly is nightmarish.

Some of my customers pick quickly, based, it seems, on cover art. Others pore over every book, examining the backs and blurbs, reading the first page, and asking me or those who have gathered around the table what we know about the books.

One man who looks like a young Santa Claus asks, winking, if I have “Fifty Shades of Grey.” But he ends up taking mysteries. A woman, who wears her hair wrapped in a high, red scarf, always wants psychology books. After being there every Monday night since Dec. 1, I know to hold certain titles aside in case certain people show up.

The books are theirs to keep, to trade, to do whatever they like with; one woman always pushes her walker up to my table and returns last week’s book for something new.

In less than an hour each Monday night, my books have been picked over, and dinner is being served in the other room, so I pack up and roll out.

Driving away from the shelter, I always worry about the people I see walking around. Are they homeless? Did they miss the 77-person cutoff and now have nowhere to sleep? But I also feel glad that at least some guests at the shelter that night won’t have to just stare up at that institutional ceiling, listening to 76 strangers snore. They’ll have a book to get lost in as they lie on their cots.

I know that the shelter is only open from Dec. 1 to March 1, but it hadn’t really sunk in what that meant until one of the guests asked me on Monday if it was my last time coming. That’s when I realized it was the last Monday of February.

Where would all these people be next Monday night? And the Monday after that?

As I rolled my remaining books out through the gate this week, there was a small group of people who hadn’t gotten beds for the night. Among them was the red-scarfed woman who reads psychology.

Never mind next Monday; where would she sleep that night?

Amy Goldman Koss’ latest novel for teens is “The Not-So-Great Depression.”