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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When school is done for the day, Kaahumanu’s in no hurry to get home. She goes to the library, gets something to eat at KFC, or visits with other students at the bus stop. Many of them don’t know she’s homeless. She worries about falling back in with the wrong group of people. She even avoids the study group in her anatomy class because so many people have dropped out, it might make her want to quit, too.
Today, she stops by a bulletin board with a photo of last year’s medical-assistant honor grads. She taps the photo and says: “I’m going to be there.”
It’s not a stretch. So far, she has a 3.0 average, an amazing accomplishment for a person who was put in special education for her four years of high school. Her behavior landed her there, and her grade-point average back then was about half what it is today. “I don’t know how I graduated. I just showed up for every class.”
About halfway through her associate’s program, Kaahumanu plans to use Heald College’s placement program for her first job. But it’s clear that she wants something more from her life: her own family. She can’t help but add a child of her own into her plans. “I could see owning my own business so I can work from home. I’d like to be a stay-at-home mom some day.”
A Second Chance
Jake Miller saves just one text message on his cell phone. It’s from a friend back on the Mainland: “I admire what you have done, you inspire me,” he reads aloud. For a man who lives in a shelter, this small encouragement is powerful stuff.
Miller came to Hawaii at 40, in search of a new life, imagining he’d be serving cocktails on the beach in short order. Restless at an East Coast bartending gig, he arrived with a suitcase, a little bit of cash, and no knowledge of the island.
“I was like, how cool would that be, to live in Hawaii and bartend? Then I get here and I realize it wasn’t that easy to get a job, fresh off the plane,” he says.
After a night sleeping in the airport, he checked in to a shelter. A year later, Miller was still there, without steady work.
“I felt like I was beating a dead horse. I’m 40. How long am I going to waiter or bartend? I don’t really have skills. I’m going to keep struggling and struggling and it’s going to go nowhere. I remember thinking: There’s got to be a better alternative.”
A few months ago, Miller attended a state-sponsored seminar on returning to college, which got him thinking: He could get loans for his education. He’d always loved science, so he set his sights on an associate degree at Kapiolani Community College.
Like any other college student, his first step was to find financial aid. “I knew nothing. I didn’t know what a FAFSA [Free Application for Federal Student Aid] was, I had no idea what information I needed. I thought there would be some sort of help, but I was completely on my own with it.” The FAFSA is the paper gatekeeper to the world of student aid; it determines how much financial help a student will get and must be filled out every year.
Miller knew of two other shelter residents attending Honolulu Community College, so he assumed there would be help for students in his situation.
“You want to better yourself, you’re in a shelter, I would think people would be coming out of the woodwork, saying, ‘Hey, you want to go to school? Let me help!’ No. Nobody. Nothing. It’s really frustrating.”
Once he sweated through the financial-aid process, Miller received a Pell Grant in time to start classes in January, part-time. He spends most days at the library, because studying at the shelter is next to impossible.
“When you’ve got a guy next to you talking to his hand for an hour, it wears on you. You’re like, ‘Oh God, why am I in this situation? I’m a normal guy.’ I don’t particularly want to see a guy talking to his hand. It’s really disturbing,” he says, laughing.
“To get anything done, I need to go. At the shelter, there’s no table, no quiet, nowhere you could study. Thank God I’m only taking two classes, because my plate is already full.”
Miller volunteers at the shelter, which allowed him to move into a smaller men’s dormitory—about 20 people to a room. “In the regular dorm area it’s a lot more likely that people will get in a fight—there’s a lot of arguments—or just stuff like somebody coughing without covering their mouth. If you want to just get a little bit better, you volunteer.”
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