'The Girl's Guide to Homelessness' Author Brianna Karp Offers Advice to Young People on the Streets

Filed under: Amazing Kids, Books for Kids, Gear Guides: Teens

Brianna Karp

Brianna Karp tells the story of how she got off the streets in "The Girl's Guide to Homelessness." Credit: Harlequin

Brianna Karp thought she had it all together. At 23, the Orange County, Calif., executive assistant was employed, making $50,000 a year, and living in a cozy cottage with her mastiff, Fezzik.

But she would soon face a downward spiral.

"I was laid off in July 2008, along with over half of my company," Karp tells ParentDish. "For the next six months, I struggled to stay afloat on unemployment, which didn't cover rent and food. I searched for work every day; I signed up with several temp agencies and took as many opportunities as I could. This was at the peak of the recession, and nobody was hiring."

No longer able to pay her rent, Karp says she attempted a short-term stay with her mother and stepfather, "which really was a last resort, as there's a very toxic history there."

She writes of her family situation in her new book, "The Girl's Guide to Homelessness," (Harlequin) released today, and of how she soon found herself without a home.

ParentDish recently caught up with Karp, now 26, about the book, advice she can offer young people facing homelessness and how she was able to not only land on both feet, but land a book deal, as well. An edited version of the interview follows.

ParentDish: Where did you end up staying, after leaving your mother's house?
Brianna Karp: I ended up living in my deceased biological father's camper in the middle of a Walmart parking lot -- taking advantage of their policy allowing travelers and campers to stay overnight on their lots for free. It wasn't fun, but you do what you have to in order to sort of eke out an existence and try to find a sustainable routine.

PD: You had no electricity or running water.
I showered at a nearby mom-and-pop gym where I purchased a membership for $9.99 a month. If I needed to use a restroom in the middle of the night, there was a 24-hour gas station on the same block. I'd learned from a book I'd read years before that you can boil water on a car radiator to cook food. I purchased a large high-powered flashlight that I shone at the ceiling of the trailer at night, and it would give me enough light to read by.

the girl's guide to homelessness

Credit: Harlequin

There were many other homeless people staying on the lot in campers and cars: a married couple in their 60s, a former doctor, a man who spoke four languages. I was by far the youngest. Many of them had lost their jobs and homes in the recession, as well.

PD: What was a typical day like?
During the day I'd usually sit in Starbucks with my laptop and send out résumé after résumé. I also started an anonymous blog, which was how I began meeting other homeless and formerly homeless people and activists. It had never occurred to me that there would be such a vast, global online network of homeless people.

PD: The idea of a homeless girl with a laptop and cell phone is a new one. How is job hunting different when you're homeless?
Everyday life has become so technology-driven that things like a cell phone and Internet access are essential. Yet, people are still amazed to see homeless people utilizing resources, or conclude that they must not "really" be homeless. Why should a person entering a crisis like homelessness be expected to give up items they may already own, like a cell phone or laptop, which may be their most valuable tools for finding work and digging their way out? Without a laptop or cell phone, I would be without means of accessing job boards in the most efficient manner possible, of sending out résumés and being contacted by potential employers.

Another thing that many are unaware of is that there are government programs providing homeless people with voice mail boxes, cell phones and even used laptops. Often, homeless individuals use public libraries to access the Internet. These tools are invaluable and critical in today's society, and they also allow homeless people a means by which to share their experiences, stories and offer one another moral support or solutions even from long distances apart.

PD: What did you learn about other homeless people from your experience?
It was a topic I'd never really thought about until it happened to me, as I suspect is usually the case for most people. It did force me to take a look at the personalities and stories behind the labels and stereotypes. What I found is that these are really just people, and that there is no basis for the automatic presuppositions that I hear over and over: "Homeless people are all druggies/mentally ill/dirty/lazy/unloved."

I found a warm, supportive network of people that did their best to help one another out, even if all they had to offer was encouragement despite their personal circumstances. In my experience, I've found that there's as many reasons and causes behind homelessness as there are homeless people. No one should be pigeonholed. I believe all homeless people need help. Shelter is a basic human need and right, as far as I'm concerned.

PD: Talk about how your religious upbringing and your mother have affected your life.
I was raised a Jehovah's Witness. I knew early on that I didn't believe what the other Jehovah's Witnesses did, and I also knew that would affect the relationship with my mother. ... My mother has a reputation as a very difficult person and was highly physically and verbally abusive, emotionally manipulative ... which I talk more about in the book. Together, they really made it a very claustrophobic environment to grow up in. It's taken some time, out on my own, to figure out how the outside world and normal human interaction works and it's an ongoing process.

PD: Through your blog you connected with Elle magazine columnist E. Jean Carroll.
I had been reading her column for about nine years, and, on a complete whim, I wrote her a letter explaining my situation and asking for advice. I never expected to hear back and promptly forgot all about it. Several months later, my letter was not only published in her advice column in Elle magazine, but she offered me a three-month, telecommuting internship.

The story ballooned in the media and was picked up all over the world. Suddenly, I found myself in newspapers and on CNN and the "Today Show." It was all very overwhelming, but definitely exciting and quite a thrill. E. Jean is absolutely one of the warmest, most generous human beings I have ever met, and I'm so grateful for the opportunity she gave me and the doors that it ended up opening.

PD: Do you have full-time work now?
A few months ago, I received a call for an interview at South Coast Repertory, a local theatre in Orange County, looking for a marketing assistant. I had applied there, along with hundreds of other assistant jobs in Orange, Riverside and L.A. counties. The interview went great and I landed the job!

I love the company, the people and the culture at the theater. I commute 80 miles round-trip per day, which is about three hours total in traffic. I'm picking up a lot of valuable new skills to add to my repertoire. As it's nonprofit work and wages are not what they used to be, I live paycheck-to-paycheck, like most people these days.

PD: And benefits?
It's the first time since becoming homeless that I've had health and dental benefits. It's taken two years of job searching to reach this point. I tried to keep my residence status and the media attention on the DL at work, but Google never forgets, so pretty soon everybody at work knew about it. My co-workers and bosses have actually been so nonjudgmental and supportive. I feel so incredibly lucky and privileged to work here.

PD: What advice do you have for young people who may find themselves homeless?
As "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" would put it, don't panic. Be as savvy as you can with the resources you have available to you. Technology and social media are your friends, so use them. With them, a world's entire wealth of information is at your fingertips.

Online, you can search for jobs, stock up on survival tips, reach out to others who've been there and might be able to point you towards available resources or programs that can help you. There is an entire community to help you through what you're experiencing. And, of course, take care of yourself and your mind. You are your own most valuable resource right now.

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.