Brianna Karp is probably the most famous homeless person in the United States. The Girl’s Guide to Homelessness blog author went from being a successful executive assistant to being homeless in a very short period of time in 2008.
Never one to accept defeat, she embraced new media and founded one of the first homeless blogs on the Internet. Two years on, she is writing a book about her story and interns with US ELLE’s advice columnist E. Jean Carroll. On a trip to London, she met Running in Heels over coffee to discuss her views on homelessness in the UK and the US, how she thinks the situation could be improved and her desire to set up a trading vintage clothing website.
How did you become homeless?
In July 2008, I was laid off with just under half of the company. I went to stay with my family for a bit because I couldn’t afford rent anymore. I had to leave rather quickly as things got violent. I inherited a trailer when my biological father killed himself and I went to live in a Walmart parking lot because I was unable to find a job. Walmart has this policy where travellers can stop and stay in their parking lot. There were lots of homeless people staying on the car park. We kept to ourselves and shopped at Walmart when we could afford it.
I was able to blog because I had a laptop. At Starbucks you can get unlimited Internet access for a month. You have to top up a card with $5 every month but you can stay for as long as you want. I could blog and look for work.
A book and a movie about your story are in progress. Do you fear your life story will be taken away from you?
Not at all. I’m personally writing the book and it’s my story, the story of me and my family and the economic downturn in the US right now. It’s not as if there is much to glamourise. The movie is still in talk.
What have you thought of Europe so far?
I find things intriguing and refreshing. The attitude and the priorities here are very different from the US, especially from Southern California. People are a lot more into politics and social issues. They are not as ignorant as a lot of people can be in the US. I also like the presence of culture and arts.
What would you advise a recently homeless person to do?
Use all the available resources you do have wisely. Event the smallest thing can be beneficial to you.
Right now, there is an increasing number of people being laid off and then becoming homeless. These people still have cars, laptops and cell phones. These are important things to hold on to.
Of course, try to keep as positive an attitude as you can because it is so easy to become depressed when you find yourself in that situation.
Is the face and definition of homelessness changing?
There is that stereotype of a homeless person being mentally ill, on drugs… Those people need help as much as anybody. However, I’ve read a study which says that only 15% of homeless people as far as they can tell are either into drugs or have a mental illness.
Increasingly, homeless people are individuals being laid off, young people. I think in the UK you don’t understand how bad it is in the US right now because your interest rates are still pretty low. In the US interest rates are skyrocketing and foreclosures are through the roof. People are losing their houses and jobs. Unemployment rates are really high, especially in states like California and Michigan.
Why do you think people hold on to this idea of homeless people being sick or substance abusers?
People don’t want to believe it can happen to them. They see someone like me and it is a shock to them. I could be their daughter, wife or sister. No one wants to go through that. In the US, we don’t have social housing like you do. The few that exist have long waiting lists. As of December 2009, I read that over three million Americans were one pay check away from being homeless.
We don’t have free healthcare. If I got sick right now I’d be screwed. We usually get healthcare from work. If you’re unemployed you either buy your own or you’re out of luck.
There is a section called Homeless News on your blog. Do you see yourself as a spokesperson for homeless people?
I’m one facet of homelessness, one point of view. There are as many reasons for homelessness as there are homeless people. Some people are in worse circumstances. I’m hoping to bring attention to the issue.
I get a lot of emails from people who are homeless and asking for help. If I don’t know where to go, I can ask around. I’ve built a network. There are now a lot more homeless people showing up online who blog like I did.
What do you think of the way the UK deals with homelessness?
The UK seems to care about its people. It picks up people falling and puts them in social housing. I haven’t seen anything comparable to what I see back in America. Most of the people I talk to seem to view homeless people as unfortunate people who need help. Americans are more scared of being attacked. You’re more understanding of circumstances that can put people on the street.
Wearing down the stigma is the most important thing. You need to talk about homelessness, to show people the faces behind it. They see homeless people and make assumptions whereas you don’t know who they are, how they got there… Plenty of people are homeless but no one knows about it because they don’t “look homeless”. They try to blend in, dress nicely, a lot of them still work.
Would you consider going into politics?
I don’t know how good I’d be. I’m pretty shy and I tend to be sceptical of politicians in general. I’m sure a big part of that is because of how US politicians are. Either they’re god or they’re scum. However, I would love to continue with advocacy and bringing attention to social issues.
How does your current internship with E.Jean Carroll relates to your experience?
I work with her on Ask E.Jean.com, her own personal site. I help her give people advice. Working on the book is also considered part of my internship. I have written a few blog entries for US ELLE. When I had to fly up to New York to go on the Today Show, one of their interns took me up shopping. They also talked about me in their December issue.
What’s next for you?
I hope to keep the blog going. I want to continue with the activism and homeless advocacy.
Because I love art, culture and fashion, I’d like to set up my own site to buy and sell vintage clothing. I’d like to come back to Europe to do some buying. I want to go to some flea markets in Paris, buy some stock and bring it back and also start selling US vintage to the UK.
I’d like to set up a charity. I’d like to take a percentage of my vintage site earnings and donate it to homeless charity.