A lot of people have been writing about homelessness lately, and they fall into categories. In one group are the people who are chronically or temporarily homeless, telling their own stories from first-hand experience. We have talked about Becky Blanton, who spoke at the prestigious TEDGlobal conference in 2009 on the topic, “The year I was homeless.”
Because people experiencing homelessness form friendships and relationships just like anybody else, the writer might also tell stories of street comrades. For instance, Ace Backwords has been for many years the chronicler of the lives of Berkeley’s legendary street characters, like Blue, Talon, and Hate Man, “your typical, dress-wearing, former New York Times-reporting, hatred-spewing, homeless freak,” who is actually one of the nicest people you’d ever want to know.
Then, there are the objective reportorial types, journalists, bloggers, and allies who gather and then disseminate the stories of others. We have mentioned B. N. Duncan, longtime recorder of homeless lives in both words and photographs. Then there are the subjective reporters, who are not actually homeless themselves but who enter that world in order to bring back stories and publicize them, in hopes of raising public awareness. We’ll have more to say about them another time.
Today’s spotlight focuses on Brianna Karp, a native Southern Californian who started working at age ten, apparently because nobody else in her family was able to. All she ever wanted was to grow up to be a solid citizen, employed and home-owning. But it didn’t turn out the way she had planned — at least, not for long..
Karp had what anybody would call a good job, not that it mattered once she had been laid off. Only executives get those multi-million-dollar golden parachutes. The average employed person is just “let go” like a like an enemy spy shoved out of a helicopter over the ocean — bound, blindfolded, and with no parachute of any hue. Karp was luckier than many, and acknowledges it:
The company that I worked for was enormously kind and fair to each and every one of us, and compensated us well with a severance package, so I was OK for a while.
Thanks to that lucky break, and by scrambling for every possible opportunity to make a few bucks, Karp remarkably managed to delay her transition from housed to homeless for an entire half-year. But, inevitably, harsh exigency caught up. Because of another tragedy — the suicide of its owner — a travel trailer came into her possession and she set up a tenuous base from which to try and rebuild her life. Introducing her book, The Girl’s Guide to Homelessness, Karp says,
I am an educated woman with stable employment and residence history. I have never done drugs. I am not mentally ill. I am a career executive assistant –- coherent, opinionated, poised, and capable. If you saw me walking down the street, you wouldn’t have assumed that I lived in a parking lot. In short, I was just like you — except without the convenience of a permanent address.
Reviewed in Publisher’s Weekly and featured by TV shows, The Girl’s Guide to Homelessness was also written about by prominent author Augusten Burroughs in these words,
Brianna Karp is the perfect example of how a person can triumph not in spite of adversity but as a direct result of it. This smart, pragmatic young woman takes us inside the new face of homelessness in America and her dramatic memoir guides us through our assumptions, fears and judgment into a place of understanding, compassion and respect. Truly essential reading.
Once reestablished in the world of the housed and employed, Karp has not forgotten her desperate days, but wishes to help others cope, and to extend hope to people experiencing homelessness.
Here’s an idea that could change the landscape: the Universal Living Wage, which can end homelessness for over 1,000,000 minimum-wage workers, and prevent economic homelessness for all 10.1 million minimum wage workers. Please learn more about the Universal Living Wage and how to make it a reality.
Source: The Girl’s Guide to Homelessness by Brianna Karp
Source: “Where It All Began,” GirlsGuidetoHomelessness.com
Source: “Reviews,” GirlsGuidetoHomelessness.com
Image by PJFurlong06 (Patrick Furlong), used under its Creative Commons license.
The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) points out the unsurprising fact that the minimum wage is worth much less than it previously was worth. Its graph illustrated the value of the minimum wage since 1960, adjusted for inflation and translated into 2009 dollars:
When adjusted for inflation, the minimum wage was worth $8.54 per hour in 1968, compared to the current minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. Based on a typical, 2,000-hour work year, the 1968 inflation-adjusted minimum wage would equate to an annual salary of $17,080 per year, versus $14,500 for today’s minimum wage.
In other words, the minimum wage decreasingly resembles a living wage. Historically, the peak of minimum wage value was in the 1960s, a long-gone era many people who are working today don’t even remember, because a lot of them weren’t born yet. The EPI also points out that raising the minimum wage stimulates the economy by giving workers more spending power. You’d think this would be obvious, but apparently many politicians overlook this basic fact.
We previously mentioned the very comprehensive interview that Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless did not long ago. It’s worth mentioning again, because when Wayne Hurlbert of Blog Talk Radio conducts an interview, he skillfully leads his subject to lay out the most important principles, as well as explain things in detail.
Painting first with a broad brush, let’s review some of the big ideas. Changing people from tax-takers to taxpayers is one of them. If the working poor were making a fair, adequate living wage, it would reduce the tax burden, because there would be less need for food stamps and other sorts of government assistance. Even if it can’t happen right this minute, people need to know that there is hope, they need to see that pathway stretching out before them. They need to know opportunity exists, and to be inspired to take advantage of opportunity, rather than subside into hopelessness.
Another basic principle of Richard’s is, solutions that come from the grassroots are faster and more effective than those involving the government. Of course, for something big like the Universal Living Wage, the government has to be behind it. But if homeless veterans in your community need socks, an appeal to the local goodhearted people will get them a lot quicker than a request to an official bureaucracy. And we have to show the way, because the old saying is true — “When the people lead, the leaders will follow.”
The biggest idea of all is that homelessness does not have to exist. This situation we have today does not have to be the situation we have tomorrow. We’re in a mess, but it can be undone and fixed. Richard’s proposal for fixing it is implementing the Universal Living Wage. In the interview, Hurlbert asks how the ULW is different from the minimum wage already in effect, and the answer is, it’s not really that different. What we have now needs to be tweaked and perfected, and if it is done over a 10-year period, the shock for anyone need not be too unbearable.
As a background, Richard talks about when the federal minimum wage was instituted in 1938, to make sure every working American could afford basic shelter, food, and clothing. It was a humane, fair, and much needed measure, but it was based on an assumption that it costs pretty much the same to live anyplace in America, so it was not indexed to anything. Still, it worked acceptably until the mid-1980s, when extreme booms and busts in the economy had really messed things up.
Another thing happened too, that would impact the nation very adversely by increasing not only the number of people experiencing homelessness, but the number of such people who were truly incapable of taking care of themselves. By the ’80s, the whole structure of mental health institutions had become so abusive, it seemed better to integrate the mentally ill into society.
The first part of the plan worked fine, dumping thousands of seriously ill and disoriented people on the streets. The second phase didn’t work so well, and rather than getting “mainstreamed,” the people ended up drowning instead, denizens of the streets, free but so impaired that freedom became “just another word for nothing left to lose,” as Kris Kristofferson phrased it.
In the interview, Richard talks about how the minimum wage always falls behind the poverty line, and how it didn’t increase for a whole decade between 1997 and 2007. We ended up with a situation where one of the largest labor organizations, Service Employees International Union, was training people in how to apply for food stamps. At one point, the University of Texas had 200 staff members on food stamps. And because of the unrealistic minimum wage, the federal government had become a creator of homelessness.
Source: “State of Working America preview: The declining value of minimum wage,” EPI.org, 11/17/10
Source: “Richard Troxell: Looking Up at the Bottom Line,” Blog Talk Radio, 12/08/10
Image by EPI, used under its Creative Commons license.