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Friday, January 30, 2009

Recommended Reading

I read a lot of books, and not surprisingly, have read quite a few about homelessness. Here are my top recommendations right now. In order of most enjoyable to most informative:

The Glass Castle
, Jeannette Walls
Entertaining and at times shocking, Walls' short memoir is plot and character driven. The narrative moves quickly and smoothly with realistic dialogue and genuine, three dimensional portraits of her family members. My favorite thing about it was that Walls never explains what you're supposed to think of her disjointed childhood and her homeless parents. She just tells you about them. A quick read, and an amazing story that anyone could enjoy.

The Mole People, Jennifer Toth
I can not recommend this book enough. My copy is worn and torn and currently on loan to someone. What Toth found when she went beneath the streets to clarify the "mole people" myth was astonishing. Her book is fluid and honest. She covers identities as requested, and even reveals some as requested. There are photos. Amazing journalism for such a young person. This book does not reflect the experience of all homeless people, however it forces the reader to start really expanding his or her understanding of homelessness.
Actually, even if you really don't care about homelessness as a social issue, it's just a fascinating study of behaviors and the human mind. For example, several of the communities Toth visited operated under their own governmental systems. They had mayors and regulators. They had electricity siphoned from the subway, and runners who brought food down. And they preferred this life in the tunnels to life above ground as we know it, and they adapted.
Others of course, had no choice originally and then lost the ability to ever make the choice again.
The first time I read it I did not know any homeless people personally. It helped me to look at people in all walks of life in a whole new way. Now that I work with this population every day, each time I re-read the stories I see something new I didn't see before.

Songs from the Alley, Kathleen Hirsch
Great for people who love history and/or Boston history specifically and/or who are seeking more information about homelessness in the Hub. The dense didactic passages peppered with names and dates are staggering at first, but are for the most part skillfully blended into the stories of two different homeless women in the 1980s.
The descriptions of the women's experiences create a counterpoint to the historical time line as Pine Street Inn and other recognizable services get on their feet. The dichotomy of the two narratives serves to illustrate two variations of "homeless life." Because the stories are paired with the nitty gritty of the socio-political and historical backdrop the reader walks away with more than just a sentimental feeling about two street women, but with a fresh understanding of the causes of homelessness as well as knowledge of the roots of all our current programming. And hopefully, therefore, with a better understanding of what changes may need to be made for the future.

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