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What if everybody read a book about homelessness?
Janie Starr read a book last November that got her thinking.
Here was a memoir — “Breakfast at Sally’s” — that put a face on homelessness, she realized. And here was a man, the author Richard LeMieux, who defied the stereotypes.
What if hundreds of people read it on Vashon? And more to the point, what if Islanders — in book groups, church groups, cafés and workplaces — talked about it? Maybe then, she thought, Vashon could understand the issue more deeply, have more compassion for those who are homeless or teetering on the edge of homelessness and do more to support the Interfaith Council to Prevent Homelessness, a group that is working to address the issue on Vashon.
Now, Starr, with support from Vashon’s two retail bookstores, the Interfaith Council and a cadre of other Vashon activists, is working to make her vision a reality.
Sustainable Vashon, a group Starr is active in, is leading what Starr is calling “an extensive awareness-building project” focused on the fact that many Islanders are struggling to get by and encouraging broad-based support for the Interfaith Council.
The effort will take many forms, she said.
The two bookstores — the Vashon Bookshop and Books by the Way — have both agreed to sell the book at full price, with 20 percent of the proceeds going to support the Interfaith Council. She received another 50 books from the Willow Charitable Foundation, a group LeMieux founded to address the issue of homelessness in Washington state; those books will be available at the library, Granny’s Attic and the Vashon food bank for those who can’t afford to buy one.
LeMieux, a Bremerton businessman who became homeless after he fell into a deep depression, will come to the Vashon Bookshop on April 8, when he will talk about his book and his experience as a homeless man.
And Starr and Island writer Juli Morser will begin a project where they interview people who have struggled with homelessness or who are working hard to keep a roof over their head. The series, called “On the Verge,” will run in The Beachcomber. Starr and Morser also hope to create a chapbook based on that series as well as poems or stories they collect from others; they plan to sell the small book as a fundraiser for the Interfaith Council.
Starr hopes the efforts will raise needed funds for the organization. But she also hopes the book and the other efforts will initiate some important conversations.
“It’s a great book. It’s a great vehicle. And it focuses on homelessness,” she said. “I think it’ll enable people to have conversations they might not otherwise have — and not just about homelessness, but about near-homelessness and job loss.”
Emma Amiad, president of the Interfaith Council, said she is thrilled that Starr, Morser and others are stepping forward to help the small nonprofit. Over the past few years, the need has climbed significantly, she said; the group served 63 people in 2008, compared to 93 last year, a 32 percent increase.
The Interfaith Council helps Islanders in myriad ways — from straight-forward support, such as rental assistance and utility bill payments, to support that can help a person hang on to a job, such as car repair costs or child care payments. The group has also stepped up to help those who are facing medical issues and can’t afford the costs of their prescriptions, Amiad said. It’s begun opening up accounts for Islanders at Vashon Pharmacy.
Amiad said the needs are varied and extensive on Vashon, where the recession is far from over. Indeed, the severe budget cuts the state is undertaking are just now beginning to be felt and likely will have an impact for several years to come, Amiad said.
“We’re juggling as fast as we can,” Amiad said of the Interfaith Council.
Janet Welt, a middle-class woman who became homeless after she had a car accident and experienced a deep depression, now feels as though she “won the lottery,” as she put it. She lives at Vashon HouseHold’s Charter House, a place she moved to with considerable help from the Interfaith Council.
Secure again with a roof over her head, she now feels a deep sense of community on Vashon, she said.
She’s not read “Breakfast at Sally’s” (Sally’s refers to Salvation Army), she added, but she fully supports Starr’s efforts. “I think it’s crucial to talk about this issue,” she said. “And I think it’s important to put a face on it.”
Miranda Carr, a 19-year-old woman with a five-week-old baby named Juliet, agreed. Though she has never been homeless, she said, she, too, knows what it’s like to live on the edge; frequent trips to the food bank have helped her and her family enormously.
LaMeiux, in his book, discussed the ways those who have little help others who have little. Carr, in the same way, said her home often provides shelter for others in need.
“Friends come over, and I make food for them,” she said. “We have very little, so the food bank helps a lot.”
And while she hasn’t read the book, she said she also hopes it will help others understand the real world of poverty. “It sounds like a really good story,” she said.
To get involved in “Vashon Reads Breakfast at Sally’s,” contact Janie Starr at firstname.lastname@example.org. To donate to the Interfaith Council to Prevent Homelessness, visit www.vashonifch.com or mail checks to IFCH at P.O. Box 330, Vashon, 98070.