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A Degree of Homelessness

They’re the most untraditional college students of all, but for these three homeless people in Hawaii, college may be their way out.


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Homeless Student: Falynn Medeiros. Attending: Leeward Community College

Two years into an associate’s degree at Leeward Community College, Falynn Medeiros was dealt a serious blow: The house in which she’d been living was in foreclosure. Medeiros, her daughter Haedyn, age 2, and Haedyn’s dad, Peter, had 60 days to get out.

Medeiros’ response? She doubled up on her classes.

“I had only been taking three or four at a time. So this fall I took six classes, then another six this semester. Being homeless got me motivated to hurry up and graduate.”

The search for housing did not go well. Her credit wasn’t great, so regular apartments wouldn’t take them. Low-income housing, priced at $700 a month, was more than she and Peter could afford with the income from their jobs; she as a shift supervisor at the Waianae Starbucks, making a little more than $10 an hour, and he as a day laborer who wasn’t getting many days of labor.

Her last resort was to ask her family for help.

“I wrote down everyone’s names, going through the list of people we could live with. I had to cross them all out, because there was no room for us anywhere. Even Peter’s mom couldn’t help. They have an auntie sleeping on the couch already,” she says. “It was scary.”

In August, Medeiros became homeless. But despite her deteriorating living situation, she continued at Leeward Community College, making her one of a growing number of homeless who are looking to a college education, and the system of grants and loans that fund it, as a way out of poverty.

“There’s always been one or two people going to college, every now and again,” says Connie Mitchell, the Institute for Human Services’ (IHS) executive director, who runs shelters in the Honolulu area. “But in the last year or so, it’s been increasing.”

“It’s a wise idea. The economy is so bad, if they go back for retraining, they’ll be better for the workforce when the economy picks back up,” Mitchell says.

It’s only been two years since homelessness was officially acknowledged in the financial-aid process itself, and right now data is scant and incomplete, as it only includes students who were homeless in high school. We spoke to three homeless Hawaii college students to find out what life is like in both worlds.

Homeless Student: Malia Kaahumanu. Attending: Heald College

From Street to School

It's Tuesday morning, 5:30 a.m. The lights blaze on above Malia Kaahumanu’s bunk. She does not stir. Thirty minutes pass. Then, a chorus of yelling interrupts her sleep: “Good morning ladies, it’s time to get up!”

A persistent 15 minutes later, and the PA system blares: “Make sure you fix your bed! Make sure your feet are on the ground! Make sure you use the bathroom before you come downstairs for breakfast! Good morning and aloha!”

It’s a school day for Kaahumanu, who, like many college students, lives in a dorm. It’s close quarters, there are strict rules, and the women she lives with are feisty and unpredictable. But this is no ivy-draped college dorm. This is the IHS women’s shelter in Honolulu.

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Honolulu Magazine April 2020
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