The homeless in Bandra and Mahim now have their own library, where they can browse books and soon, newspapers too on the very same streets they call home. Aesop's Fables, Agatha Christie and Rabindranath Tagore will all have new fans

Can you imagine a bunch of  children filing out of their tarpaulin sheet-covered footpath home and walk into a public library where the city's educated spend their time researching and adding to their knowledge?

If you have books to give, simply call up Bharadwaj and he will collect them for HoL. You can also donate sketch pens, pencils, and notebooks for the children, or volunteer to spend time at the street library like this one opposite Mahim station

For these children, who call the streets their home, books with thick paper, intricate illustrations, eye-catching colours, fairy tales and photographs will no longer be objects they only see in the hands of booksellers at traffic signals.
Thanks to the efforts of Mumbai-based NGO Alternative Realities, they'll soon hold and flip through books at two Homeless Libraries (HoL) on footpaths in Mahim and Dadar.

And with a little bit of co-operation from the civic authorities and contribution (in kind and time) from the privileged classes, Abhishek Bharadwaj, founder of Alternative Realities hopes that the remaining 1.5 lakh homeless in the city could soon do the same.

Bharadwaj went around town collecting all sorts of books old and new, English, Hindi, Marathi, for kids and for adults for HoL. Most people he approached were baffled and couldn't understand how the books they or their private school-educated children had read could be of use to the city's homeless.

That, says the Tata Institute of Social Sciences graduate, is a function of stereotyping and ignorance. "Most homeless in the city are not beggars. They are daily wage workers or artisans who make baskets etc.

They stay on the streets because they can't afford a house in Mumbai, but that doesn't mean their children don't go to schools or don't have aspirations or interest in art, music and reading," he says.

The idea behind HoL is simple. "The homeless have never possessed or had access to books. When they flip through these books and see beautiful pictures and illustrations, some may not understand what they see, but many will get interested.
The idea is to generate curiosity and once that happens, volunteers will read out and explain the contents of the books to them," explains Bharadwaj.

Although the homeless are to be found in every corner of the city, they do not have space for social interactions. Engrossed in the fight for daily survival, recreation often becomes a secondary issue.
HoL seeks to ensure that the homeless, especially children and youth, create time and space for rest and reading in their lives.

How it works
Alternative Realities has developed the HoL model to ensure that users of this library develop a sense of ownership and responsibility towards books. "We have a designated person within the community in each area, who keeps watch on the books and the people who come to read them.
They collect Re 1 every day from the person using the library. We hope to make the library self sufficient," says Bharadwaj. The money collected is used to buy newspapers in various languages, and pencil and paper for children interested in art.

The library also welcomes anyone, who would like to pick up a book and read it while sitting on the footpath. "This is a great opportunity for people to interact with the homeless, understand their lives and break the barrier that has existed for decades," Bharadwaj adds.

How you can help
If you have books to give, simply call Bharadwaj who will come over to collect them for HoL. You can also donate sketch pens, pencils, and notebooks for the children, or volunteer to spend time at the library, interact with readers and solve their doubts.
Another great way to help would be to allow the HoL centre closest to your house to keep the books safe at your apartment or shop every night.
Call Abhishek Bharadwaj on 9920402813

In a survey conducted by Alternative Realities, it was found that as many as 38 per cent of the total 1.5 lakh homeless population possess basic reading skills

Per cent of homeless know Hindi

Per cent know Marathi

Per cent know basic English