Trendy homelessness?

You wouldn’t expect Elle magazine would hire a homeless intern, but being homeless isn’t the same as it used to be these days.

In fact, the intern, Brianna Karp, aims to change people’s perceptions of homelessness with her blog. The 24-year-old Southern Californian woman has lived in a camper parked in a Wal-Mart parking lot (until it was recently towed) for the past six months, after being laid off from her job as an executive assistant. See her full story at The Girls’ Guide to Homelessness: Where It All Began.

Like other young people, Karp blogs and is on Twitter and Facebook, using free Wi-Fi at Starbucks. According to the Associated Press, she even met a boyfriend from Scotland, who also blogs about homelessness, over the Internet.

This summer, Karp wrote into advice columnist E. Jean on Elle magazine about a failed attempt to get on a reality TV show, and E. Jean saw something special in the woman who signed her letter, “homeless but not hopeless.” Karp is now spending an hour a day, six days a week, working for E. Jean (all over the internet), while still applying for fulltime jobs.

So now the magazine that features designer clothes and Hollywood actresses is featuring one of L.A.’s homeless. In her first blog post, she writes that “the ‘new face of homelessness’ the last couple of years is the middle-class recession victim with a stable history, who would never have previously been pinpointed as a likely candidate for homelessness.”

I, too, have noticed new faces among Chicago’s panhandlers—there seems to be an increasing number of young people, sometimes with pets or children, asking for change. Reading about Bri’s life helps me empathize with the newly poor. (I always feel conflicted about giving money to panhandlers–even more so when I see the newly homeless. What do you do?)

But as she exposes this “new face of homelessness,” I hope she doesn’t forget those who have been living in poverty all along. She does say that even the stereotypical “bum” is “no less deserving of help,” and comments that homelessness is being criminalized. She could do a great service by educating Elle’s readers about the challenges the poor face every day. 

Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickled and Dimes: On (Not) Getting By in America, has been writing on poverty in the New York Times. I recommend reading about the growing criminalization of poverty, including punishment for “neutral behaviors,” as well as her essay on the already poor versus the "nouveau poor."

While the new fashion in Elle may be “shabby chic” for the recession, I hope increased awareness of homelessness isn’t just a temporary trend.