The dark blue late model Buick pulled carefully into a parking spot in the back lot of a Wal-Mart store. Powerful lights cast a harsh light, displacing the final glow of a weak March twilight as it faded from the peaks of the Sacramento Mountains in New Mexico. This night would be cold and long.
We watched as a smartly dressed Caucasian woman of a certain age emerged from the Buick, stretched her back and neck, and surveyed her surroundings. She didn’t look like the usual Wal-Mart customer. She wasn’t. She walked to the back of her car, opened the trunk and began removing items: a blanket, pillow, a grocery bag with what appeared to be snack food, and a bottle of water. Then she opened one of the rear doors of the Buick and began to arrange her bed for the night.
My wife Claire and I travel widely throughout America in our small motor home, gathering photos and notes in our role as independent journalists. Our days often begin before dawn and go on until the last good photography light fades away. We seldom have the time or energy to find an RV park. Our motor home has all the comforts we need, so we usually do what we vagabonds call “boondock.”
There are many places to park: libraries, quiet streets, rest stops, most public lands in the West, and sometimes just a wide spot along the road. Our standby “boondock” is a Wal-Mart parking lot. A store security guard once told us that Sam Walton, the company’s founder, was an RVer, and decreed that overnight parking in his lots would be allowed. A few stores have signs that warn of the dire consequences of ignoring local ordinances against overnight parking. Wal-Mart managers usually tell us to just ignore the signs; it is private property after all. We return the favor by shopping there.
In the last year as the economy has declined, the number of people sleeping – not in RVs, but in cars – has climbed dramatically. We’ve seen whole families crammed into small cars, trying to sleep upright – while we sleep in our comfy full size bed, complete with reading lights and stuffed animals. We stay at Wal-Marts by choice – they don’t.
These most recent neighbors of ours are not filthy drunken bums in oil leaking junkers. More often they are in late model vehicles. When we watch the people take turns going to the store’s toilets to wash up, they don’t “look homeless” to us. We’ve seen half million-dollar motor homes, the size of overland buses, parked next to a PT Cruiser sleeping a family of three.
Our RV has a hot shower, stove and refrigerator. We have healthy hot meals and glasses of wine. They have McDonalds or snack food, if they are lucky. When it rains we have ventilation, and when it’s cold we have heat; they have neither.
We don’t know for sure who these people are, but they are somehow displaced, the “new homeless.” We’ve seen them from Maine to Florida, in New Mexico and South Dakota.
They probably could go to homeless shelters, but don’t. I’d guess it to be their pride. They are not long from being solid working class, and they haven’t given up hope. There is a job for them somewhere, in the next town perhaps, and again someday, a home.
Poverty is relative. We’ve traveled in places where our transportation, a tandem bicycle, was worth a couple of years’ wages, and yet the people we met were happy, sharing what they had with us. Maybe watching two Westerners riding a double bicycle through their village made their day! I think it had more to do with our being like their neighbors – solid citizens, not different, not losers.
All too often in America money and possessions are used to define the value of a person. So these new homeless people hang on as best they can, hiding their relative poverty in Wal-Mart parking lots. At least in America they do have a chance to return to “valued person” status, by getting another job and once again having money to spend.
As citizens, for some time still, of the richest nation on Earth, we make reasonable efforts to help those less fortunate. And yet something about these “new homeless” seems more depressing, almost scary, to the rest of us. Maybe many more Americans are a great deal closer to joining them than we care to think about.
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