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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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The rows of bunks where Malia Kaahumani studies.

After breakfast and dorm cleanup, it’s time for the women to leave the shelter for the day. With no particular place to go, some sit on the sidewalk outside; on her way to the bus stop, Kaahumanu passes women holding babies, talking on cell phones and sitting on camp chairs in front of their cars, windows down, music pouring out. Today is a school day, so Kaahumanu can’t join them.

Not long ago, this vibrant 26-year-old college coed woke up in a Waikiki stairwell, not knowing how she had gotten there after a night on the street, using drugs. “I looked at where I was, and said, ‘This ain’t me.’”

Born into a violent relationship, Kaahumanu was given to a local pastor to raise when she was only 3, while her mother left for the Mainland. The upbringing was strict and religious—her adopted father pressured her into marriage to her first boyfriend, at age 17, to keep her an “honest girl.” It was not a pleasant union, and she was separated by 23.

Her next love affair was with the “wrong crowd”—people who used drugs carelessly, ran the streets and hustled for money. She floated through years this way, on the Mainland, Maui and Oahu. With addictions to feed, she turned to prostitution—she euphemistically calls it “watching her corner”—to support herself.

“A while back, everything started just going downhill. My boyfriend was leaving me alone a lot, the money wasn’t right and we lost our place.” She survived by hopping from apartment to apartment, staying on friends’ couches or sleeping all day on the beach—junkies don’t sleep at night.

After hitting rock bottom that day in the stairwell, she quit drugs cold turkey, enduring withdrawals and the temptation to use while living a street life. It was hard to stay clean around people using drugs, and having sex for money was impossible without being high.

With nowhere to go, and desperate to get off the streets, she called the shelter. She didn’t call her parents, and they had no idea how far she had fallen. “I had to do it by myself,” she says.

“When I got to the shelter, everybody was looking at me. I was ashamed, because I am a pastor’s daughter. I was like: I can’t believe I’m doing this. But the people that checked me in made me laugh and smile.”

Within a few months, Kaahumanu had started classes at Heald College in the medical-assistant program, encouraged by another IHS resident who was attending the same school. “I tried going to college twice while I was on the streets,” Kaahumanu says. “Now I’m in my second quarter.”

Kaahumanu battles frustration and lack of confidence every day. “I’ll be on my bunk at the shelter with my books and I’ll start thinking: ‘I can’t finish because I’m so stressed out’ and I start having an anxiety attack. Then I just put all my books to the side, go outside and smoke a cigarette, and talk and laugh with some of the aunties. Then I go back and study.”

Not all of the women are supportive of her college aspirations. “Sometimes they mess with me while I’m trying to study or rest. They’re trying to irritate me. They don’t understand why I need to study.”

There is little private space in which Kaahumanu can study at the shelter, though she is afforded a “rest pass” which allows her to stay when other residents are asked to leave during the day. “I’m one of the lucky ones,” she says, because she can actually take naps.

Though far from ideal, life at the shelter feels like a step forward for her. “It’s a safety net, a place where I can be safe and stable. Even though it’s stressful, it’s home.”

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Honolulu Magazine May 2019
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