How We Live: An artist turns to her creativity to get through a tough year

Updated: Nov. 13, 2020 at 12:38 PM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - 2020 was supposed to be Meleina Hancock’s year. And things started off well enough.

In January and February, Hancock felt busier than she’d ever been.

She was a teacher at the Honolulu Academy of Arts School, leading classes in screen printing and textiles for adults and children. She was nurturing a fledgling clothing business, Okika Cloth, launched the previous November. And she was picking up jobs here and there as people sought her skills.

And then the pandemic started — and everything changed.

[To help tell the story of the pandemic in the islands, Hawaii News Now is debuting a new digital series, “How We Live,” that explores the ways in which COVID-19 has upended our “normal” and brought about change. See more stories from this series by clicking here and share your own with us here.]

Hancock was laid off from the Academy of Arts School in April, and started the process of filing unemployment. And then, along with more than 100,000 other unemployed workers across the state, she waited. And waited. And waited, all the while scouring news updates, online forums and social media for clues about why her application was taking so long and how to speed things along.

She also dialed the state’s unemployment hotline obsessively, religiously, hoping to get through.

In mid-June, she finally did and was able to get help with her claim. A few weeks later, Hancock started receiving her unemployment benefits. But in the meantime, she’d eaten through her savings — an emergency-only fund she readily admits was not equipped to keep her going for months.

Her side work had also mostly dried up and her clothing line was foundering. Amid government-ordered shutdowns and other disruptions, she couldn’t really promote it or try to get it placed in stores.

Sales were slow to nonexistent, and they still are.

Today, Hancock is among the more than 30,000 people in the islands who have exhausted their unemployment benefits and are seeking federal help through a special CARES Act extension. She is also one of many who are wit’s end, scrambling for purchase — for any scrap of stability — in a year that’s provided one life-changing challenge after another. It’s all left Hancock exhausted. Drained.

It’s left her lost, too.

“I’m trying to figure it out. I look at different job search engines. There is an option to step away from my trade and try to get a job in a different field, which to me is not … it just makes me a little sad,” she said, speaking on a recent day. “But I realize this is not the time where you get everything you want.”

Hancock realizes she is luckier than others. The 35-year-old doesn’t have a big family to take care of. While her business isn’t bringing in enough to live on, she still has the inventory and is excited about a new mask she’s designed and put up for sale. And she has her art — though she hasn’t had much time to create.

What she’s struggled with the most is the constant worry — coupled with no shortage of infuriating bureaucratic hoops to jump through. It took months for her to start getting unemployment. But it also took countless hours of research, sometimes whole days spent at the computer trying to figure out how to get help.

She also encountered issues filing for food stamps, a benefit she never imagined she’d need. And she’s sought assistance through a state program for rental aid — and had heard nothing after a month.

Hancock can’t afford her rent payments so she’s relying on the state’s eviction moratorium to stay put for now. She can hardly afford her other bills. And given everything, she’s taken on more debt.

She said she was naïve to think Congress would come through with a second stimulus package—something she’d been hoping for to do a little catch-up and give her a chance to push forward.

“Right now, I’m just going through all the savings that I had been holding on to. There’s really not much,” she said. “It’s just been a month-to-month figuring out how I can pay bills.

"The plan evolves, what I was relying on last week is maybe not the reality this week.”

So Hancock is focused on her business, trying everything she can think of to grow it.

And she’s searching for other possible opportunities as she takes things day by day. To remain above water, she says she plans to do what she does best at as an artist. “I just have to get creative,” she said.

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