Hateraid: “Homeless” Elle Intern Edition

Last time I checked, living in a trailer where one has a fully functional laptop, internet access, clean clothes, food, and other basic necessities does not constitute being homeless. Poor? Yes. Without a proper street address? Yes. Unglamorous? Yes. But inherent in the word homeless is being without a home, and Brianna has one of those.

Semantics aside, Brianna Karp has had a difficult life: she grew up poor under the care of a mother with both a mental illness and a substance abuse problem. She began working at the age of 12 out of the need to contribute to the household income and take care of her own personal needs. She is currently underemployed and dealing with the daily challenging situations faced by those with few means. She blogs about these challenges at The Girls Guide to Homelessness, and her entries resonate with those of us who are or have been among the working poor.

While reading Brianna's blog, I found myself thinking about the recent Washington Post article that began with the statement "you have to be rich to be poor." (Anyone who doesn't understand that statement must promptly leave this site and read the article now.) Part of why I recalled this article is because of the numerous hassles Brianna has on her plate (e.g., trailer in impound thanks to WalMart and a broken down car), but another reason is because that article highlights exactly why this (not really) rags to (semi) riches story rubs me the wrong way.

Brianna scored an internship with Elle, where she currently gets paid $150/month to write for their blog, by contacting the magazine's advice columnist E. Jean Carroll. E. Jean was so enamored with Brianna's "courage and spirit" and "highly entertaining blog" that she offered her a four-month telecommuting position as the columnist's lackey because "the cleverest way to land a good job…is to already have a good job/internship/volunteer position." Soon after, the story of Brianna's newly acquired internship hit the media and had people raving about how this little homeless girl's resourcefulness and clever thinking had got her on the path out of poverty. This is the kind of story a friend of mine dubs poverty porn: the shallow sharing of egregious incidents and conditions that ultimately result in the reaffirmation of a narrative we all know too well: that ubiquitous bootstraps pulling American Dream scenario. This kind of tale is all about the glorified ending without the mess of the reality of what it takes to get there—if one is able to get there.

One could argue that Brianna is putting a human face on homelessness (which is, indeed, her stated goal) or that she's bringing to the forefront issues faced by the working poor, except for one thing. She fails to make substantative connections in the dilemmas she writes about. She even goes so far as to disconnect the two: "my thrift store habits are not a direct result of my homelessness." Instead of smartly tackling important issues (like that most people shop at thrift stores do so out of necessity not choice, contrary to what indie hipsters would have you believe), she simply tries to make thrifting seem cool by talking about the thrill of hunting for the perfect vintage outfit. Brianna's articles could easily be written sans that mention of her so-called homelessness, but there's a shock and sympathy factor gained from its mention.

Maybe I'm being too harsh on Brianna. Let me try that again: I'm being too harsh on Brianna. Girlfriend is taking care of business, and I've got no quarrel with that. In fact, I wholeheartedly support it! I just want her to push her analysis more than she's done so far. I want her words to move beyond complaint to examination and then to action. I know Elle isn't exactly known for its hard-hitting, in-depth journalism or its activism, and I'm sure they (and the media covering the story) are simply looking for pat pieces to up their oppression cred and feel-good tales in a time of economic turmoil. But couldn't the magazine at least pay Brianna minimum wage? It's a lot harder to swallow the idea of the vapid fashion magazine's newfound benevolence when you know Brianna's hourly rate falls below the legal requirement for a proper employee. Sure, she's just an intern, but does that make it okay to exploit someone who clearly needs a living wage?

Hang in there, Brianna. Milk this opportunity for all it's worth, and then take what you've gained and go get what you deserve.

Update: In a comment below, E. Jean has clarified that Brianna gets paid for her blog separately from her internship with the advice columnist.

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Comments

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"But couldn't the magazine

"But couldn't the magazine at least pay Brianna minimum wage?"

That's a good point. I don't want to quibble about whether this woman is homeless. Actually, I really think the type of "homelessness" she's experiencing is potentially instructive and could be eye opening. The majority of people who are homeless aren't on the streets. They are women and children - families - who intermittently stay in shelters. Many are doubled up with friends or relatives. This makes it difficult to get accurate counts of the number of people who are homeless, although statistics suggest the number of folks in these types of situations is certainly rising and has been rising since long before the recession which started in 2008. I think living in a trailer, especially if not by choice, could be seen as a similar living situation. Could.
I give this women credit for being a scrapper, but I'm not willing to give Elle that much credit for making her scrap. The fact one women may parlay a successful blog into an Elle internship and potentially into a full time writing career is cool. However, I think, as in many other cases, she's getting attention because she is a boot-strapper type advocate. Those types are never really that helpful to the issue itself, and sometimes are even harmful.

What is a home?

You say at the beginning of this post that "inherent in the word homeless is being without a home, and Brianna has one of those." But does she really? The stereotypie of a homeless person is someone who sleeps on the sidewalk, doesn't have clean clothes or clean hair and carries all of their modest belongings with them from place to place. If this is what it means to not have a home, then I suppose most people who consider themselves homeless are not, in fact, homeless according to this standard. I recall reading in a New York Times article about homelessnes several years ago that about 50% of the homeless people in Minneapolis/St. Paul (where I live, therefore I remember this) work full time- 40 hours per week. Working a full time job requires access to food, clean clothes and other life neccessities. When I worked for a legal services organization, I met a number of homeless clients in a variety of different circumstances. Some homeless people live in boardinghouses with shared kitchens and bathrooms. Some sleep in shelters overnight where they have to leave every morning at 7:00am and return at 6:00pm. Some camp outside at night during the summer. Some live in their cars. Some surf the couches of friends or family. Homeless people do their laundry and keep themselves clean. They own ipods and cellphones and yes, sometimes even laptops. (p.s. wireless internet is everywhere- including the public library). The common thread among homeless people is that they do not have a permanent place to call their own- like an apartment, a mobile home lot, or a house. I don't know anything about this Elle intern, I hadn't heard of her before I read this blog post- but if she is living in a trailer that could be impounded - meaning she does not rent the space that it is sitting on - then yes, she's homeless. Let's not rank inequalities, let's focus instead on ending homelessness in all of its myriad forms.

who's ranking?

It's not a matter of ranking, it's a matter of clarifying. See comment below.

The definition of Homelessness

According to the definition of the federal department of Housing and Urban Development, she's homeless. A camper is usually not considered "a public or private place not designed for, or ordinarily used as, a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings." A trailer might be, but considering the cramped table where they are sitting, I think where they live is more for week long camping trips than living year round. It may not have adequate plumbing, or insulation, or ventilation. I think that labels people attach to themselves should be respected; even if Brianna isn't HUD homeless, or McKinney-Vento Homeless, or even the new HEARTH Act homeless... if she considers herself homeless, she is more empowered than most to realize she deserves a better place to live. The definition is a very personal as well as a very political thing.

I think that housing is a human right. Housing in the United States is not affordable -- affordable being another definition we should look at. HUD suggests that people spend no more than 33% of their income on rent, utilities, and taxes for their place of residence. I know that on what I make, I should only play 280 dollars on rent. I pay 415. Homeless Management is full of patriarchal assumptions as well. There aren't enough shelter spaces for women and children; there aren't enough feminine products or diapers donated to shelters; childcare is so expensive that women can't afford to work, and yet many women are turned out on the street with their infants and young children during a shelter's "closed" hours.

Yes, this is poverty porn. No, she does not interrogate her situation deeply. But seriously, you should.

people live in trailers...

and other environments without adequate plumbing, insulation, and ventilation all the time. These things do not necessarily make one homeless. That "cramped" camper she's living in is luxurious by comparison to some single-wides in rural Georgia where I grew up. This is not to say that Brianna's situation is acceptable b/c others have it worse or that she doesn't have the right to name her particular situation. She does, and as I pointed out before, the argument I am making in this post is more about semantics than identity. For the sake of accuracy, there needs to be an alternative word or description in use here that more adequately conveys her situation. (Perhaps squatter or camper?) There are many degrees of homelessness, and having the understanding that there is a particular cultural image associated with the term homeless, I believe the differences between that cultural image and Brianna's situation need to be more clearly delineated the same way I think a person who chooses to be homeless (like a gutter punk who travels state-to-state riding freight trains and feeds themselves by dumpster diving) should be delineated from being a domestic violence shelter dweller who is homeless by circumstance. If we don't make those distinctions we leave the door open for serious misunderstanding.

It'd be pretty awesome if Brianna would write a piece for Elle or even on her own blog about the different degrees of homelessness in the US.

The Definition of Homelessness

She is homeless. I am really surprised that a Bitch writer, and presumably an advocate of women's rights, would argue with an advocate for homeless rights about the federal definition of homelessness that the homeless advocate has to wrestle with on a daily basis. This is an intersection of the feminism and homeless worlds -- and I think you have something to learn about the homeless world. Most of the homeless people in the United States are homeless the way Brianna is homeless -- they're often referred to as rural homeless, and are rarely considered so because of the prejudices that MANY have. Apparently including you.

*sigh*

K- Regardless of one's particular job title or manner of identification, one has every right to question the validity and usefulness of particular terms as determined by the federal government, as this definition of the term "homeless" was created as a result of this same type of dialogue you and I are having right now. I'm sure you can trace the history to find out when exactly this definition went into effect. What I am arguing in this instance is that using one word (homeless) to describe a huge range of situations and circumstances is limited and confusing, that as a result the blanket use of this term should be further interrogated, and that new, more accurate terms should be put in place. I can't figure out why this idea is so offensive to you, particularly as it has the potential to make your work more effective.

Homeless Chic and the privilege of blogging about it.

Reading through Brianna's blog, her life doesn't seem too atypical, except she chooses to live in Orange County, CA, she chooses to own a car, she chooses to blog about her situation in language intended for the college educated, or at least well read hipster.

Many many many people have to cultivate resourcefulness in order to make ends meet, whether they're looking through food in dumpsters, selling their cars and biking instead, doing work trade for housing, remaining mobile rather than settling down, moving to cities where they're more likely to find a job, etc. These are basic survival strategies. So there's nothing remarkable about any of what she's doing. In fact, Brianna is actually quite better off than many people: she has a resume, she has work experience in the corporate sector, she has a car, and her plight is now known by hundreds of potential employers. She can network. The people featured in the Washington Times Article don't have any of that.

I doubt you're going to get an in depth analysis about the workings of poverty from her blog because despite her upbringing and present circumstances, thanks to white privilege - as well as the innate talent and intelligence her privilege allows her to cultivate - Briana isn't actually suffering in the permanent depths of true poverty. And her story is compelling to white professionals / hipsters for just that reason: there's a happy ending to her story. For most truly mired - in - poverty people: those who were born into poverty, have lived their whole lives in it and have no hope to emerge from it, the story and it's conclusion aren't quite so cheery. And we'll never get a blog from them.

Since I only cursory looked

Since I only cursory looked over Brianna's blog I will not go to in-depth with comment. Though as someone who has for years volunteered with youth experiencing homelessness, I felt it important to share a few thoughts. First off, she is experiencing homelessness by the generally accepted definition that another commenter wrote about and I take that as a given fact that does not need to be debated. While I just started looking at her blog I did find this in her "Initiation" posting - "I wonder how many other people like me are out there. People who had the stereotypical idea of a homeless man or woman, who believed that it would not, could not, happen to them. The truth is, we never know the whole story. We don’t know other people’s circumstances. You can speculate that the wino sitting outside the 7-11 begging for change is there because he’s too lazy or stupid or uneducated or selfish or mentally ill. But will we ever truly know? Look at me. I’ve worked hard for all of my adult life (and all of my adolescence), sought out a college education, worked for corporations and executives, built a life and a “secure” foundation to fall back upon. Yet, here I am. So, now what?" Yes, I understand your want for her to "push her analysis more than she’s done so far", however I am not sure that is really necessary, or wanted, here. There are plenty of places where that type of analysis is done but all to often people ignore it. Brianna is engaging people in the subject matter, increasing interest and hopefully lead people to further explore the issue. I do the same thing by listening to people's comments about homelessness than asking them how this applies to kindergartners since any comprehensive discussion of homelessness must include how to address children experiencing homelessness that you can read more about here - http://www.homelesschildrenamerica.org/.

More common than you think

I appreciate the analytical way this article examines Brianna's situation, as I am all too familiar with it. After graduating law school and taking the bar exam last year, I was lucky enough to find a job at a small firm while friends of mine were beginning to hear talk of layoffs and mass firings. Although I had found reliable employment, I was stuck in a lease that was affordable while receiving student loans but could not be paid on my meager salary as a first year attorney. In large part, my situation was due to the staggering student loan debt I had accumulated in supporting myself through law school, which I had supplemented with a part time job. Not wanting to default on my obligations, I subletted my studio apartment and slept on friends' couches. I lived out of suitcases, having to wear my same three suits I've worn since 2004 in successive rotation. I ate rice for every meal. Although I did not refer to myself as "homeless," by the above standard, I certainly was.

Because I am an educated professional, however, there was no organization willing to assist me. I have not lived at home since I was 17 and had no intention of spending thousands of dollars to leave the only state in which I am licensed to practice law in order to live with my parents, who have no interest in supporting a 26 year old woman. Any opportunities to pull myself up by my bootstraps will have to wait until the economy recovers in 2010 or 2011.

Instead, I traded my extremely convenient studio within walking distance of my office for a smaller studio much farther away, requiring me to purchase a subway pass for my commute. Additionally, this smaller apartment is located in a building that runs its utilities on a shared meter, meaning that my electricity bill tripled because I am sharing the cost with heavier users. The only way I was able to keep my head above the water was to defer payment on more than half of my student loans, a choice for which I will pay dearly when they come due, as interest has continued to accrue. The cost of low wages, although I am far above the poverty line, has been high.

I am not the only young professional in this position, but I wish I were. Educated people (women in particular) are treated like dirt in this country, and it is high time for a paradigm shift. Not all of us can depend on a beauty magazine to bail us out.

Thank you for sharing your

Thank you for sharing your experiences with us; I know it can be difficult sometimes to talk about and I want to commend you for it.

Ponderous

Thank you for sharing your compelling (and all-too-common) story! It really underscores the need for organizations that assist people across the spectrum of homelessness and poverty. In the documentary Waging a Living, one of the women interviewed talked about how the working poor are "hustling backwards" to explain what you describe: how once you hit the point where you're on the cusp of self-sustainability, you lose access to certain benefits provided by the government and nonprofits (because those are reserved for the "really" poor) and it knocks you back a few steps. So it's a disincentive for people to rise out of poverty, both in that it makes it literally harder to do and it sours one's spirits when you feel like you bust your ass more to get less.

BRI IS BRILLIANT

A hearty hello to the wonderful people at Bitch and
a quick doff of my hat to the Bitch Commentators.

Just a quick note:

Bri is being paid to write her blog on Elle.com.
This is far, far above the money she is receiving
for the Ask E. Jean Internship. She has also, thus
far, received two bonuses.

It is a spectacular story, I agree. But some people
are just waaaaay too cynical. Neither I, nor anyone
on at ELLE ever dreamed this would become news.
(And trust me, I am too lazy to run around trying
to drum up interest for ANYTHING.) 12 weeks ago when
Bri's letter came in, we simply saw that a clever, unstoppable,
honest, energetic young woman was down on her
luck and we wanted to give her a little hand.

Thanks E. Jean!

I appreciate the clarification about Brianna's payment and will make a note at the bottom of this article for readers to refer to your comment.

Hatin' on Bri

The author of this article cites THE major criticism of Bri (yes, Bri) as follows:

"I just want her to push her analysis more than she’s done so far. I want her words to move beyond complaint to examination and then to action."

There is a long and complicated history between underrepresented groups of people (whether grouped together by race, class, gender, sexual identity, ability, etc) and privileged voices staking in claim in what "they" need to do. As the author has cited the precarious nature of economic stability, you'd think she would be able to differentiate what "action" may look like among each case; Bri's primary action may be just what she currently is doing: surviving.

The power to name is just that, and delineating how individuals should enact their worldview is both controlling and oppressive.

P.S. Why should someone with less means forgo the fun of the hunt? We all deserve a little excitement.