'I didn't think I'd stay homeless for that long ...'

The story of one woman's fight to rejoin the middle class after ending up homeless -- and blogging about it.

By MSN Money Partner May 24, 2011 3:10PM

By Rick Newman, U.S. News & World Report


 U.S. News & World Report on MSN MoneyA 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.


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 Brianna Karp / Maryse-Noelle Sageconnected 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.


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. Post continues after video.

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 bootstrap 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 OK 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.


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.

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.


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 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.


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.


More on U.S. News & World Report and MSN Money:


Jun 2, 2011 12:15PM
Re: Stereotyping of the homeless. Yesterday I was at Wal-Mart. 3 families were in some type of vehicle at the back corner. Near the store, an obviously homeless man was walking around with several antennas attached to his hat... clearly not in reality. So, did I equate the 3 homeless families with the possibly schizo man? I did at first. Then I looked closer. I wanted to know the stories of those people. I thought about how scared they must be of being run off. I've been an unemployed accountant with an advanced degree for 18 months. Soon, I may be homeless. I currently work for no pay, just to have work to do and to keep my brain engaged while I continue searching for a job. How do people view me?
Jun 2, 2011 2:20PM

Homeless and using your money to fly to Scotland... for a man? That's not real homelessness, it's poor decision making. I lived in Oregon for a while and there are the same kind of quasi homeless "kids" there too. Kids who don't want to accept what their families are offering them to help them get over the rough spots, spoiled kids who don't want to live by their parent's rules. Sure that's difficult some times, but it's the same kind of help that people living through the Great Depression had to humble themselves to when they lived in relative's attics, etc. Working for a non-profit that doesn't pay much because it makes her happy? Why didn't she get a job at the Wal-Mart where she was living or work at the Starbucks? I don't have a lack of empathy for homeless people, I just think this girl needs to develop more realistic decision making skills.

Jun 2, 2011 2:58PM
Flying to Scotland does lose my sympathy. That right there was irresponsible. A former friend of my wife was homeless when I met him so we moved him in with us. He was very irresponsible too and his major problem was the girl he was dating. After he stole money and lied to my wife who was on the phone while I was watching him smoke pot (he said he wasn't) we booted him back out again. Bad decision making is what can lead to this sort of thing.
I lost my job and 4 months later my wife lost hers. We spent 8 months living on just her unemployment. We survived with renting out rooms in our home and skated by on 600$ a month. She got a job just before her unemployment benefits ended and it took me another 6 months. Surviving is about finding a way too- not scraping up enough to fly to Scotland. My family lives in another state and I went from visiting them every 6 months to not seeing them for almost two years.

Jun 2, 2011 8:01PM
I could never survive on the street and I have immense sympathy for those who manage it.  There is more than enough money in the world to feed, clothe and shelter everybody, and I tire of seeing the greed of corporations run unchecked when so much actual need is out there.
Jun 2, 2011 5:22PM
I've been homeless and never want to go through it again. At least this girl had a place to sleep. The cause wasn't drugs, booze or mental illness (although I ended up with PTSD afterwards), it was lack of money. I lost the place I rented with my brother-in-law and all I owned to a wildfire in October 2003 and was laid off just before Christmas (they laid off one person under 40 so we couldn't sue). I got enough money from FEMA, severance pay and the usual 26 weeks of unemployment  (Republicans at that time voted down an extension) to live on for over a year, but couldn't  (I turned 50 in May 2003) even get a job at Wal-Mart. Ok now, finally got Social Security Disability and Medicare. Medicare doesn't pay enough and I'm trying to get MediCal (unplanned hospital stay in March), but that's another story. The funny (strange) thing is: since I wasn't into drugs, booze or had a mental illness at that time, I couldn't get much help. My brother-in-law (who moved in with his parents) told me to fake it, but I wouldn't.
Jun 3, 2011 7:28AM
I have to say, that when I see the countless homeless vets on the sides of roads, saluting while holding signs up explaining their plight, my heart goes out to them.  I wonder how many of them are saving up to go abroad.  I mean the cost of a passport alone is over $100, so to do that would mean to sacrifice quite a bit.  Then to be able to stay in a little motel up the road while paying in another currency?  That's more money.  And to think, had he gotten along with his parents who apparently still have a home, he could at least bathe there!  I say this tongue in cheek of course, but I must admit that I can believe the cornucopia of poor decisions made.  Several have put her where she is now and unfortunately, it's my belief that her's is a matter of choice or of at least poor decisions; completely isolated from those suffering from PTSD, drug abuse, and other ills.  I too am a victim of my own poor decisions.  I had a wonderful job, a great home, and a great life... I gave that up to follow a woman who not only wouldn't wear my name, but still had a man in the bed where I was to sleep... I met another woman and ended up bringing another child into this terrible life... I was laid off due to "low morale" and "performance instability..." Plainly put, I couldn't focus at work with all the chaos going on around me outside of it.  To sustain myself, I have taken on more debt - by way of student loans - to earn an advanced degree, but the extra amounts that I receive helps to supplement the low amount of unemployment I receive when I am not working a temp or seasonal position as an accountant.  I guess what I'm saying here is I know and have witnessed real pain and although this woman's story is hard and terrible.  I believe biting the bullet and facing her poor decisions will help push her forward.  She should be happy she has that ability (as I am).  Things for her could be worse... waaaaaaay worse.
Jun 2, 2011 6:08PM

   Please read what I say and don't act foolish:

  Here in America there is a tendency to label others, I know because Its on my skin. Some segments of the population have been warning about is for almost a century without anyone paying attention. We have been called lazy and some other unusable words for trying to warn you of what you are now experiencing without success.

  Today, most of you know someone who is in the same place as this woman but still look down on those who are there.

  There will be no recovery and you better get use to it. This system is failed but you would rather die than change it all because of you wicked attitudes.

   Many of you who now feel the pain helped to devise ways to take away benefits from those you deemed uneducated and lower class than you, and now the system you created has turned on you and there is no place for you to get help and no one to do it.

   Your parents suffered because of you "doing your job" and now you and your children will face the same dilemma.

   You should have listened, but then again Malcolm was not your kind of man to listen to was he? And the chickens have come home haven't they.

   I know my words will anger you because you hate truth and love you politicos, but my words will help you, they will destroy you.

   Change the system, make it work for te poorest among you and then you will benefit.

Pray for the rain.   

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