11 Jul Homeless and On the Road
I camped in a Walmart lot last night in Fort Worth, Texas. At Walmart Supercenters, which are open 24/7, there’s always a security officer patrolling the parking lot. That’s why van campers and RV folk like parking there: it’s the store’s unofficial policy to allow vacationers to park overnight in their lots. But not all Walmarts do this. It depends on the local ordinances. On the west coast, for instance, where there are too many people clamoring to stay at the beaches, no Walmarts allow overnight parking.
So, last night, as I prepared to bed down, I peered through my window shades and eyed the security patrol car warily as it made its rounds. In Oxnard, CA, I was roused from a deep sleep at 3:30 AM by a Walmart security officer who told me overnight parking was prohibited. “Where’s the signage?” I asked. “You’re supposed to have signage that announces stuff like that.”
No one roused me last night. This morning, I was grateful for a strong breeze that cut the Texas heat. Tapping into Walmart’s WiFi, I figured I could stay here a while. I hung my wet gym clothes from the rear view mirrors. Then I saw a young woman approaching–a barista from the nearby Starbucks. Oh, no, I thought: what does she want? To pet the dog? To tell me to leave?
She stopped about 5 yards away and said, “Do you need any water for the dog? Anything for yourself? We’ve got water, if you need it. And maybe a snack.”
Oh my god, she thought I was homeless! I thanked her for the offer and assured her that I was fine. I mean, I’m driving a Mercedes van with solar panels on the roof. Why wouldn’t I be fine? But people don’t see that. They see an older man with his aged dog camped out in a Walmart parking lot, his dirty laundry hanging from the rearview mirrors.
A guy named Israel stopped me on the sidewalk in Berkeley and told me he lived for 15 years in his van. “It wasn’t easy,” he said, “but it was all I had.” He was sympathizing. Like everybody else, he assumed I was homeless.
I have seen too many people sleeping in their cars in Walmart parking lots. Some cars are rusty beaters crammed with the chaos of the driver’s life–wads of clothing, piles of pots and pans, cardboard boxes of canned food.
I won’t pretend that I understand what that’s like. The only thing I truly understand is how vulnerable we vagabonds are, wary of the approach of strangers as we seek a safe place to park for a single night’s sleep.