I'm One of America's New Homeless

Published on
by
The Guardian/UK

I'm One of America's New Homeless

Brianna Karp lost her job, is broke and is now living in a trailer – but she's not beaten yet

by
Brianna Karp as told to Claire Prentice

I always thought homelessness was something that happened to other people. I was 24, educated, had a $50,000-a-year job as a personal assistant, a cute cottage in Orange County, California, friends and a dog. And then, one day in December last year, I went into work to discover my company was laying off lots of staff and I was one. It was the start of a string of bad luck.

Initially, I moved in with my mum but we've always had a volatile relationship and it didn't work out. As of February this year, I was officially a homeless woman. The idea terrified me. I cried and cried. How could this be happening to me?

As I contemplated life on the street, I had a phone call from the coroner's office in Los Angeles. My biological dad had killed himself and had left me his trailer and car. I also discovered I have two half-sisters, aged 17 and 14. They travelled from Texas to cremate the body and we met; it was surreal.

I had an unhappy, unstable childhood. My family are Jehovah's Witnesses and I grew up in the religion. But as I got older, I read up on it and began to see it as a cult. Certainly it's a very judgmental religion, which shuns people who leave and has an apocalyptic worldview. I was 18 when I left. Since then, my relationship with my family has deteriorated.

I had nowhere to go, so I moved into my dad's trailer and parked it in a Wal-Mart parking lot. I'd heard from a friend that they sometimes let people in trailers stay in their lots. I had no running water, gas or electricity, but it was a place to crash.

About 30 other people were living there in trailers and cars. We tried not to draw attention to ourselves so customers didn't complain. There wasn't much socialising but having other people around made me feel safer. One "neighbour" was a former doctor who spoke several languages. Another used to own three houses. We were a new face of homelessness – middle-class people with stable lives that the recession had wiped out.

I will never forget my first night in the trailer. It was cold and deathly quiet. Every noise made me jump. I didn't sleep a wink and spent all night afraid someone would break in.

I spent my days in a coffee shop, surfing the internet for jobs and sending out CVs. I would buy $5 cards each month that entitled me to drink coffee and use unlimited Wi-Fi. I began writing a blog, girlsguidetohomelessness.com, and using Twitter as a way to keep sane. My first reader was a guy from Portsmouth called Matt, who became homeless after losing his job and his wife. He was now living in Huntly, Scotland, and ran a website for homeless people. We really hit it off and started emailing and instant messaging for hours at a time.

Just as life seemed to be getting better, I came back one day to discover my trailer had been towed away. I found out it had been impounded and would cost me $2,600 to get out. The amount is going up by $80 every day and I don't have the money. I managed to get a friend to rent me his old trailer instead.

Matt decided to use his savings to come for a visit. It was a gamble, but it has been much better than either of us dared hope. We have so much in common – art, history, architecture, theatre – and he understands me better than anyone I've ever met. Obviously, we'd both like our lives to be different, but we try not to take it out on each other. Unfortunately, Matt has to return to Scotland soon and we don't know when we'll see each other again.

I've sent out hundreds of CVs since I got laid off, and recently wrote to E Jean Carroll, American Elle's advice columnist. I had just messed up a job interview and asked her how I could get a second chance, signing off "Homeless But Not Hopeless". I still can't believe what happened next: she published my letter and offered me an internship on her website, askejean.com. I've now started the internship and have been busy replying to readers' problems. I've been through a lot in my short lifetime, and I take their problems very seriously.

Because I need to be available for job interviews, I'm doing my internship remotely – from my trailer. I get $150 a month for expenses. A lot of people think my life has been turned around – but the reality is that I'm still homeless and unemployed.

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