If you have been following the adventures of Brianna Karp in homelessness, joblessness and family dysfunction, you know it doesn't take much to tip a person into a world of few resources. Just over a year ago, Brianna was about to be without a regular home due to family issues and a layoff. She lived for a time in a travel trailer on a discount store parking lot, and that was a whole story in itself. Brianna is not one to whine about her troubles, but she is not one to be quiet about them either. Bless her heart, she set out to show the world that homeless does not mean helpless. Thus was born "the Girl's Guide to Homelessness."
Anyone who tries to fight the many negative stereotypes of homelessness is fighting an uphill battle, but the minute you start reading her blog you will understand that Brianna is quite a fighter. I found out about her a few months ago through a post on a business networking site. When I checked Brianna's blog today for an update I found that she had just celebrated the first anniversary of that first homeless day. Due to the publicity that became attached to the Girl's Guide, she has been on national television, worked as a fashion show intern, found a regular job in her field and been signed to a book contract. Wow. None of which she expected, I'm sure. She was just determined to blow off steam and show that joblessness and homelessness can happen to almost anyone.
I have often been conscious of how little it takes to push someone into a homeless state. When you consider the number of people living paycheck-to-paycheck with maxed-out credit cards, and then you add the ones with no credit cards to max out, the ones with no savings accounts, and the ones who are constantly rolling one payday loan or stack of pawn tickets (or both) into another, you realize. One stretch of bad health, one layoff, one family split, can be all it takes. There are probably a number of people who have endured temporary stretches of homelessness unknown to their friends and family. But many of the "permanently homeless" have alienated friends and family and gone through a series of neighborhood and community resources, including multiple shelters, before ending up on the street. It is much harder for them to come back to anything approaching normal. Often the problem is that they were never in what many of us would consider a normal situation. I suppose "normal" is relative.
I had the privilege one summer a few years ago of teaching a class of homeless or verging-on-homeless individuals basic computer skills for several weekly sessions. The ones who were interested had already tried out things on the local library computer and were hungry for more knowledge. Several of them had considerable computer experience but it was either 30 years out of date or on a very specialized system. Judging from his word processing sample paragraph, one of the students appeared to have an engineering background. Anyway, a month or two after my stint of summer classes was over, one of the women in the class approached me near the building where I work and said she thought that was me and she just wanted to let me know she had found a job using those computer skills. It was so little a thing that she needed to get going. That's one of the factors illustrated by Brianna's story. Many of us have dreams of what we could do for all the homeless people in the country if we had the chance; the real key is to take the opportunity to do one little thing for one person at a time. I have to remind myself of that often, as I have to confess I have not done much in this area. I know that giving a few dollars or buying a street magazine is not by itself the answer.
Congratulations to Brianna -- and the people who helped her -- for where she is now compared to where she was then. Brianna herself has said multiple times that she understands she is very fortunate; many homeless people do not have the instinct or the resources to find their way through the maze as well as she has. On the up side, Brianna's experiences have led her to become an advocate for the homeless. On the down side, it is easy to understand from her case why more people who have experienced homelessness are afraid to admit it. Some of the comments about Brianna have been vicious. People fear homelessness and at the same time have a contempt for it.
A few of the books in my library describe experiences and images of homelessness:
- Shadow Women: Homeless Women's Survival Stories, by Marjorie Bard
- The Women Outside: Meanings and Myths of Homelessness, by Stephanie Golden
- My 30 Days Under the Overpass: Not Your Ordinary Devotional, by Mike Yankoski
The first is a collection of personal experiences, the second is an analysis of the mythology behind common stereotypes and the third is the journal of an experiment in what it feels like to be homeless with a bit of a safety net. Each is thought-provoking in its own way. Taken together with stories such as Brianna's they show that we have a long way to go before homelessness is handled intelligently in our society.