Book Review: “The Girl’s Guide to Homelessness”

(note: this is cross-posted from OverMediated)

The Girl’s Guide to Homelessness by Brianna Karp is a bit of a Horatio Alger story: girl becomes homeless, starts blogging about it, blog gets noticed, girl gets fame and a book deal from it, a la “Julie & Julia.” I don’t begrudge her that; she’s a great writer. She writes in such a funny, conversational way, I felt like I was sitting right next to her at a coffeeshop, listening to her fascinating story.

Full disclosure: I was also drawn to this book because Karp and I have several things in common. Like her, I was raised a Jehovah’s Witness; I also came from a home marked by random violence (though not by my mother) for most of my childhood; and I’ve also lived in that “grey area” of being “not really” homeless  – I’ve lived in a bus, a tent, an abandoned hunting cabin, and a camper shell (among others, but that’s for my memoir).

I also understand this is her story, not mine, and I’ve tried not to let my closeness to the subject matter infect my opinion of her writing.

The book starts en media res, as she’s parking her travel trailer in a Walmart parking lot, worried she’ll be towed or ticketed or worse. The chapter closes with: “But then, it’s not really enough to tell you that I’m homeless, is it? You want to know who the hell I am and how I got here.” I was hooked.

She then gives us a brief tour of her life and upbringing as a fourth-generation Jehovah’s Witness at the hands of first, an abusive father who later turns into her sexual abuser; then verbal and physical abuse from her increasingly mentally unstable mother. She weaves in just enough information about what JWs believe to help “non-believers” understand what’s going on without feeling like they’re being lectured at. She also weaves in clues that mental instability might run in her mother’s family – a fact she worries about in the first sentence: “I’m trying to decide whether it’s fair or not to say that insanity runs in my blood.”

She starts working (I’d say obsessively) at the age of 10, and after she leaves home, she lands a great job earning enough money to rent a small cottage and adopt a giant Mastiff puppy. Her life seems complete and happy. Until she gets laid off.

Luckily, she inherits a large travel trailer and truck from her father when he commits suicide, so she opts to take advantage of the Walmart policy of letting RV campers park on their lots (in most stores, anyway). Here is where her actual homelessness begins.

Throughout the book, she acknowledges the resources she has that many homeless people don’t: the trailer, a laptop, a cell phone. She acknowledges that her experience isn’t typical; I say it is more typical that you might think. Most homeless people in that situation – without a regular shelter, but with a car and/or a job – try really hard not to get counted as homeless. Nothing kills your chances of getting a job like admitting you’re homeless. Plus, because of the social stigma (and illegality) of being homeless/sleeping in your car, they also work hard not to appear to be homeless/sleeping in their car. In short, they are invisible.

She rightfully skewers the prevailing attitude that if homeless people have laptops or cell phones, they aren’t “really” homeless. Again, she points out this is because it goes against the stereotype of the dirty bum living under a bridge begging for change. Most homeless people used to have homes, and phones, and TVs, and all sorts of other modern luxuries. Why would you sell the very things you need to get out of homelessness – a phone and/or laptop to look for a job – for the cost of a couple of meals?

However, I have to criticize her writing at this point. While it’s awesome that she works so hard to dispel the stereotypes and bring attention to the reality of homelessness, she doesn’t bring her perspective any wider than herself. She could easily have included some statistics on the how the number of homeless has increased since the recession, the most common reasons why people become homeless, the fact that the homeless are one of the most likely groups to be victimized (right up there with prostitutes), information and history of homeless rights, etc., etc.

My final critique: the last half of the book seems to be entirely about her relationship with a fellow homeless-rights advocate in Scotland. I know it was an important part of her life and how she kept up hope, but it felt like a pretty serious detour. I found myself feeling disappointed in her for traveling to Scotland instead of, say, paying a couple of month’s rent at a cheap trailer park. The ending didn’t tie the book together; it just sort of trailed off.

Even with it’s flaws, I still highly recommend this book, even if you don’t give a damn about the homeless. It’s just a fun read.

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