NORFOLK, Va. - A local woman who experienced homelessness is now inspiring others wile working on earning her second college degree.
Cynthia Felton said she used to sleep under a bridge near the courthouse in Norfolk, in graveyards and in porta-potties while homeless.
Now, Felton is working on her second college degree at Tidewater Community College and hopes to eventually get her bachelor’s in theological studies.
Felton said she left an extremely abusive relationship several years ago for her safety, but she had nowhere to go.
“Anything could happen because I was a woman. I was by myself,” said Felton.
She said on rainy and cold nights she would try to find a porta-potty to sleep in. “I get to lock the door. I knew I could actually sleep,” she said.
Felton said she was attacked several times, “I had to defend myself from getting raped … and I always ended up getting away by the grace of God.”
She said after eight months of living on the street, she found herself at the Union Mission Ministries off Virginia Beach Boulevard.
“It started with of Ms. Gray. She saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. She said I could do anything. It didn’t matter what my past was; it doesn’t have to mess with my future. I can do anything,” said Felton.
She got her GED and then moved on to Tidewater Community College despite having a disability. Felton said she suffers from seizures, which prevent her from driving.
She said it wasn’t easy, but eventually after a lot of hard work she got her associate degree in social sciences.
She said sadly, Ms. Gray passed away unexpectedly and didn’t get to see Felton graduate.
Now, Felton is going back for her liberal arts degree but said being homeless again has been a constant concern while she works for her education. Felton said she knows many of her fellow students at TCC are struggling.
TCC Norfolk Interim Provost Emanuel Chestnut recently sat down with News 3 to talk about the problem.
“It is a huge issue. You have homelessness, and you have food and securities. Those are two of the top concerns that our students experience,” said Chestnut.
In fact, one study found that 42% of community college students have food insecurities and 12% are homeless.
“They really struggle, and my heart goes out to them because they’re persevering and overcoming. Many of them are homeless, but yet they still come to school,” said Chestnut.
Chestnut said they recently had their first mobile food pantry and provided 100 students with food to bring home.
He said Towne Bank donated $250,000 to help with the problem and there are plans to have campus pantries and a food scholarship program. He said they have a great relationship with the City of Norfolk and that they are working with their partners/friends to help combat issues students are dealing with.
Officials said there are plans for help with housing and mental health.
For Felton, TCC and the Union Mission were a huge part in her success. “She’s an inspiration for me,” said Chestnut.
“For someone who came from where she was to where she is today is a huge achievement,” said Linda Jones, Union Mission Ministries' Public Information Director.
Felton said her next goal is to get a bachelor’s degree in theological studies then become a pastor and lead by example by showing people they can overcome anything.
“I can help somebody after all I’ve been through,” said Felton.