NASHVILLE -- One's a street poet, the other a well-heeled publicist and the third a government bureaucrat.
They're sitting beside a threadbare, homeless writer who still dreams of songwriting success and a dapper editor in starched shirt and khakis in an upscale art gallery.
The day's discussion is the Chinese philosopher Confucius and what he had to say about the ruling class and one's duty to family and community. The occasion is a brown bag lunch at Nashville's Great Books Seminar, where a decidedly intellectual approach to the homeless problem is being taken.
The study group is the brainchild of Robert Wolf, the founder of the Free River Press and the leader of a writing workshop for homeless people that contributed the material for two books of poetry.
Students at either the luncheon session at the Metro Arts Commission Gallery or the evening session at the downtown library spend 39 weeks studying Confucius, Greek philosophers and medieval writers.
The tab -- for Wolf's $5,000 salary and $2,400 for books, copying and other costs -- is picked up with the help of grants from the Tennessee Humanities Council and the Tennessee Arts Commission.
The readings and debates address the fact that homelessness has its roots in a fractured community, Wolf says.
"I wanted to deal with ethics and political theory," said Wolf in an interview. "My theory is that we are a messed up country because we don't talk about what it is to be human beings."
The great philosophers address those questions, he says.
"If we can communicate, we may find a common ground. Any interaction is good," said Ted McClendon, a formerly homeless man who says he is in the middle of a separation from his wife and may end up homeless again.
No one can understand unless they've been homeless, says Billy York, who sports an Eddie Rabbitt cap and a red "Walk for the Homeless" T-shirt. The writing workshop is helping him to explore what led him to drugs and homelessness, but he isn't sure what he's getting out of the seminar.
"I do like debating different points of view. You can get a fuller understanding of people," he said.
El Gilbert, a formerly homeless poet, said the seminars and workshops provide a meeting place for writers, as well as a place for homeless people to go and something for them to do.
"Where to go is always a question; everyone is going to look at you," said Gilbert. Gilbert worked for years at CBS Records in New York before she moved to Nashville for the music industry, but could not get a job that paid enough to keep her housed.
Steven Meinbresse, coordinator of services for the homeless for Tennessee state government, attends the seminar because he also believes the roots of homelessness can be found in the loss of a sense of community.
"And this kind of interaction with divergent types of people can be a beginning for restoring community," Meinbresse said.
Wolf's work in publishing the writings of the homeless dovetails with the seminar, and many writing workshop participants have joined the Great Books Seminar.
A one-time columnist for the Chicago Tribune and a graduate of St. John's College with degrees from Columbia and Chicago University, he moved to Nashville so his wife -- a singer -- would have more opportunities.
He was hired to teach GED preparation to the homeless, but found that most had their equivalency degree or high school diploma, some had college degrees and one had a master's degree.
He decided to conduct a writing workshop instead, and his wife suggested collecting the works to give the homeless a voice.
So was born the Free River Press, publisher of "Five Street Poets" and "A Rebel Yell: Stories and Poems by Nashville's Homeless." Two books scheduled for release this month are "A Lion's Share" by Gilbert and "Passing Through," another anthology.
"I see the writing as important documents, the literary equivalent of the WPA photographs," Wolf said. Writing raises the self-esteem of the homeless and can be a form of therapy, although he hastens to add that some -- such as Gilbert -- are very talented writers.
"For most of them it's just going to be something that gets them to feel better about themselves," he said.