Photo: Courtesy of Shawna Machado
At 8 a.m., the University of South Florida campus is all but deserted. Most students won’t start trickling in for another hour or so and Shawna Machado, 40, knows this is her chance. She slips into a bathroom and turns the lock. Despite appearances, the fourth-year psychology student isn’t looking for a reprieve from another all-night studying session.
She just needs a shower.
After seven years working as a clinical coordinator, Machado was laid off in May 2010. With just three months of severance to float on, she barely made it through the summer before running out of money to cover rent.
“I panicked knowing that I wasn’t degreed in anything,” she told Business Insider in a phone interview Tuesday. “I didn’t know how I’d be able to get another job. I applied for everything, medical jobs and retail jobs … I was called for about three interviews.”
Having run away from an abusive home as a teen, Machado found herself in an equally damaging marriage shortly thereafter. It took nearly 20 years before she managed to break free and she’s long since severed ties with both parents.
With no job prospects or family to turn to, Machado faced reality: she sold or donated what she could and packed a few belongings into her 2007 Hyundai Elantra.
Then she hit the road – for the next two years.
Since that day, Machado’s drifted between the homes of close friends – she won’t stay longer than a week for fear of being burdensome – but mostly lives out of her car.
Despite the circumstances, she decided to continue pursuing her Bachelor’s degree and enrolled at the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee to study psychology.
Machado threw herself into at least a half dozen community outreach projects and maintained stellar grades, becoming something of a campus darling along the way. Without the demands of a full-time job, she worked at a domestic abuse shelter and mentored at-risk youth in her free time.
“I wasn’t getting called for a job and I wasn’t going to sit around and do nothing,” she said.
“I didn’t want anyone to treat me differently.”
It was during a special summer course on homelessness that she met her own mentor, Professor Bonnie Greenball-Silvestri.
At the time, only two friends knew Machado was homeless and even then, she let them believe she was bouncing from couch to couch: “I never told anybody I slept out of my car,” she said. “I didn’t want anybody to treat me differently.”
But when Silvestri asked students to journal about their thoughts on the topic, she realised her pupil could easily have been the subject of one of her lectures.
“I was sort of just blown away by the whole thing.”
“I remember that I was sort of just blown away by the whole thing,” Silvestri told Business Insider.
“I feel like Shawna is so proud and she only wanted to tell us because it was relevant to the class … She doesn’t feel betrayed by the community but instead she wants to enhance it.”
Reality of the road…
What her friends didn’t know was that on most nights, Machado wouldn’t sleep at all.
Instead, she’d take advantage of 24-hour Starbucks or linger at Walmart where she could study into the wee hours of the morning. By day, she caught a few hours of shut-eye in parks or at nearby beaches.
With her polished blonde locks and an armload of schoolbooks, she didn’t strike anyone as out of the ordinary, so she was usually left alone.
“I know there are a lot of services (for the homeless) in our county, but I just felt like I had things that other people that were homeless didn’t have,” she said. “I felt like I’d be taking it from someone who needed it.”
Making ends meet
After losing her job, Machado relied heavily on the $8,000 IRA she’d cobbled together during her employment.
Today, there’s about $300 left.
To get by, she takes odd jobs walking dogs, working part-time in a domestic abuse shelter or helping out friends. When she’s lucky, she’ll land a house-sitting gig. The latter is ideal, since it means having a place to do her laundry for a change.
Because she wasn’t working the required 20 hours/week to qualify for state welfare and was denied Medicaid as well, Machado relied on her school’s free health department and got used to limiting her diet.
“I can eat pretty cheaply,” she said. “A lot of times, during the school year I would buy frozen vegetables. I’d go to (a friend’s) house to eat.”
Home away from home
Photo: Courtesy of Shawna Machado
“Everything I own I was able to fit into my car,” she said.
“That’s my home for me. That’s my sacred space and something nobody can take away from me.”
She stashes extra clothing at her friend’s house and makes an effort to pack light so as not to draw too much attention.
Here’s what she keeps on hand:
-Blanket and pillow
-Two book bags
-An overnight bag for stays with friends
-A small suitcase for extra clothing
-A bag for food
On May 6, Machado not only walked the stage at her college graduation but was awarded one of the highest honours the University offers matriculates – the Outstanding Graduate Award.
“I’m totally tapped,” she said. “My savings have gone, my school loans are all used up. I have enough money to get through this month.”
It wasn’t until a local newspaper covered the ceremony that news about her living situation began to spread. Having kept her secret hidden for so many months, Machado says she’s finished hiding the truth.
“At this point, I’m happy my story gets out because I want people to be inspired by what I’ve done,” she said. “It’s hard. I’m tired. But it’s possible.”