The people at the Beacon can use a good distraction.
Since the start of the new year, the homeless day center has seen a 20 to 30 percent increase in clients as more people fall victim to the worsening economy. Tracy Burnett, the director at Cathedral Health and Outreach Ministries, which runs the Beacon, has met local nurses and construction workers, and families who moved to Houston for jobs that suddenly disappeared -- "people who haven't been homeless before," she says.
The Beacon provides a hot meal, laundry and medical services every Friday through Monday, along with things like unlimited coffee and sweet tea to make people feel comfortable. There's also a book shelf, which until recently had been pretty much empty.
Now the Beacon has crates of books at its disposal, and the books are flying off the shelves. Burnett might bump into a client engrossed in a novel or biography; one recently gave her a history lesson on Abraham Lincoln.
"You can tell they've transported off into a different world," she says. "It's probably the best place they've been in a long time."
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Through a partnership with the Houston Public Library Foundation, the non-profit that supports the city's 43 libraries, anywhere from 300 to 1,000 donated or out-of-circulation books will make their way to the Beacon every month. Two shipments of about 1,000 each have arrived since the program started three weeks ago. Burnett estimates that 150 books are leaving the shelf every day. She isn't expecting them back.
"All we ask is that they pass it along to someone else once they're through," she says.
Some of Houston's homeless take refuge in the local libraries, using the computers to search for jobs and check e-mail, or just staying and reading, according to Susan Bischoff, president of the library foundation. But it's impossible to get a library card without a Texas address. Now people without one can take books with them anyway.
"Sometimes they pass them on, other times they don't," Bischoff says. "We're just delighted that they're reading."