One Woman's Fight to Rejoin the Middle Class

“I didn’t think I’d stay homeless for that long....”

By SHARE

A few months after losing her administrative job in the summer of 2008, 23-year-old Brianna Karp got rid of her furniture, a beloved piano, and most of her books so she could move back in with her parents. When that didn't work out, she moved into an old trailer a relative had left her, settling into an informal homeless community in a Wal-Mart parking lot in Brea, Calif. By the summer of 2009, she was living without electricity, regular showers, home-cooked food, and most basic conveniences.

[See who will hire the most in 2011.]

Karp held tight to her laptop, however, and began writing a blog about her experiences. That generated attention that helped her land a part-time magazine internship, and eventually ink a book deal. Although her book, The Girl's Guide to Homelessness, was recently published, Karp still lives in a dilapidated shed that the state of California considers not fit for human habitation. I spoke with her recently about her experiences. Excerpts:

What happened? I lost my job in 2008. I kept up my rent payments with temp work, which lasted for a couple of months, and I had a few thousand in savings. But I was basically living from paycheck to paycheck. I moved in with my parents, and that was not a good idea. I had to get out. I'm not connected to my parents any more. I ended up living in a trailer in the Wal-Mart parking lot. I had inherited it from a relative who committed suicide earlier that year. I have a couple of close friends, but they were all living with their parents or with roommates and wouldn't have been able to put me up. You think you have that to fall back on, but not really.

That's obviously an abrupt change. How did you adjust? You go into survival mode. Becoming homeless is not the kind of thing people foresee happening to them. I didn't think I'd stay homeless for that long. I'd go to Starbucks with my laptop and send out hundreds of emails and job applications. I really crave stability. A lot of people are nomads, but I don't like moving. It gets depressing very fast when you're homeless.

What did you miss the most? My old piano. I missed playing piano. Playing with my dog in the back yard. I had to board my dog. He's a Neopolitan mastiff. He's really big. I kept him for one month, until it got hot. I tried boarding him at a kennel, but then I put out a tweet asking, anybody want to board a dog? I found somebody out in the boonies within 36 hours.

[See how to recover from a career flameout.]

I miss stability. Electricity—clicking on a light switch and staying up late at night cooking or reading. I'm sick of eating crappy food. Your health takes a beating. I miss having my bed. I've been sleeping on a couch or on the floor for a really long time.

Anything you didn't miss? Furniture. You can always find more. And it's easy to get rid of. It was a lot harder to give up books and movies. The bigger stuff, it's easier to cut the cord. When you're in survival mode, you slash everything.

How'd your blog get started? A friend suggested I write a blog and promote it on Twitter. I said, "I still don't get Twitter." I sent out one tweet and said to my friend, "There, are you happy?" Then I started getting followers. It turns out there are a lot of homeless people online. Even rough sleepers have laptops, because nothing is more valuable than keeping you connected to the outside world.

What's a rough sleeper? People who sleep outside, on benches or sidewalks.

How'd you access the Internet? I found a $5-per-month Starbucks card, and used that so I could access the wireless. They were fantastic. There are a lot of people running small businesses out of Starbucks. They're great with homeless people as long as you're respectful.

[See where rents are rising the most, and least.]

What's it like living among homeless people? I was raised to look down at homeless people with disgust. This challenged my perception. That's always a good thing. There are people who have experienced worse things than me. Way, way, way, way worse. I haven't had to sleep rough. So I'm lucky as far as that goes. I've always been safe. Not everyone has that luxury.

There are some homeless people struggling with mental illness or drug addiction, who can't pull themselves up by the bootstraps. They don't have bootstraps to pull. But the fastest growing subset of the homeless population are mobile homeless like me, those affected by the recession and living out of vehicles and just trying to blend in and boostrap their way out of it. I met a doctor. He and his wife were living in a car together, thinking of moving to another country and teaching English. I met a guy who speaks four languages and another guy who used to own three houses. There are a lot of people who lost their jobs and thought they'd be okay but were unable to find work. A lot of people who took unemployment as long as it would last. And a lot of others have been foreclosed on. That's pretty common. This recession has been completely indiscriminate. It's affecting everybody.

How'd you look for a job? When you're homeless, you really want to make sure you don't have that look. Like you're homeless. On job interviews, you don't want people to know you're homeless. You find a business suit, shower in a gym or at a community college.

Did you get any work? Yeah, a couple temp jobs, assistant work, secretarial work. I spent a month working at West Coast Choppers, doing accounting work.

[See why the middle-aged are missing out on new jobs.]

What was your lowest moment? Going through a breakup with my fiancé. It ended badly with me waiting for him at a train station, abandoned in the snow in a blizzard. We met on Twitter. He was my first follower. He lived in Scotland and grew up privileged. He had a really good job and got laid off. He couldn't support the house he was living in and they finally foreclosed. And he wasn't close with his family. So he put everything into a suitcase and ended up homeless. Then he started a website about homeless people, and discovered my blog.

We visited each other and made plans to get married. I scraped up enough money to visit him in Scotland—surprise him—over Christmas in 2009. I got a surprise of my own. There was a woman staying in his house. I was shocked. He said, "It's not what it looks like, I'll get rid of her, but meanwhile, you can't stay here." So I stayed in a little hotel in town, spent all my money, and after a couple of days, they both packed their bags and left. The only contact with him since then was a two-line email saying, basically, "I can't explain."

That sounds devastating. It was. That was a very depressing period. There are still periods like that occasionally. I had a couple of close friends who knew the circumstances. They'd give me pep talks and take me out to dinner. I read a lot of books. And I had to finish writing my book. It was supposed to have a happier ending, but now maybe it's more realistic. I was naïve. So I guess it's a coming-of-age story.

[See how the middle class is shrinking.]

You're not living in the Wal-Mart parking lot any more, are you? Wal-Mart started towing people. I was at a temp job one day and I came back to find my home was gone. The general manager at the store had told us all, "you can stay as long as you need to," but somebody from the corporate office came to visit, and they had everybody towed. It took me a month to get my trailer back.

What did you do in the meantime? I stayed in a motel for a couple of days, then I moved onto a lot in Riverside. A friend of somebody who had read my blog offered to board my dog there, and when my trailer got towed, she said, "Why don't you come and stay here." I'm in a converted shed now instead of a trailer. There are a couple other sheds and garages here. A few trailers. There's even somebody living in an old Greyhound bus. Code enforcement comes sometimes, and we all clear out, then some people come back.

You're working now, right? Yeah, I'm a marketing assistant at a local theater group, a nonprofit. Since it's a nonprofit, the wages aren't the highest, but I love my job and the people I work with.

So why don't you move into an apartment or a more stable home? The job doesn't pay me enough to. The commute is pretty far, rents are going up, it's that kind of vicious circle. I'm just plugging away, trying different approaches.

Do you still consider yourself homeless? I consider myself in a limbo state. The government would consider me homeless, because I don't have a fixed residence that's fit for human habitation.

[See 5 reasons taxes are going to rise.]

Will the book help you make enough money to get into a more stable situation? I don't know. I used most of the advance to pay back people who had loaned me money. The book has gotten some attention but the advance wasn't a huge amount. I'm just trying to work hard and dig myself out.

What has surprised you about this experience? I didn't think I had it in me to handle a lot of this. To go into automatic survival mode. I look back and think, "Wow, I'm stronger than I thought. I can handle more than I thought." A lot of people helped me. You can't do it without good people.

What do you feel people should know about the homeless? There's a stereotype that they're lazy, dirty, mentally ill, or there because they want to be. It's a hard life. You can't be lazy and be homeless. You have to do so much just to survive, to get by from day to day. You don't always have transportation, money, or food. You have to worry about where it comes from. Yet get tired easily, and depressed more easily. It's not like you say, I don't feel like working any more so I'm going to go sleep on a park bench.

There's also a misconception about what "homeless" means. Do you have to be panhandling? Or sleeping on a park bench? A lot of people think it doesn't count if you're living out of a vehicle, but if they were living out of a vehicle, they might think otherwise.

[See 7 ways to sink in a stagnant economy.]

What would you do to address homelessness, if you could? Come up with more affordable housing. I have friends who have been on a waiting list for two or three years. Disadvantaged people or those with addiction problems, plus children, they tend to get it first. People like me, living out of cars, are considered higher functioning, so we wait a lot longer. I'd like to see legislation putting things into place for affordable housing.

How you do envision your future? I've got goals and dreams. I don't think I'll ever be rich, but I would like a career. I love arts and culture and my job isn't the highest-paying, but it's fulfilling. I want to keep up my homeless advocacy. Keep blogging about it. Once it's happened to you, you can't not help. I'd like to scrape up enough to move closer to work, and have a yard for my dog again. Some day I'd like to restore an old Victorian house.

Twitter: @rickjnewman