The New Homeless

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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  1. Richard E. Kelly December 12th, 2008 9:07 am :Bob, thank you for the post and haunting photos. You are a multi-tasker, who creates eloquent mental pictures with both your words and photos. Oh your photos! They often say more than your words. While this story was a bit disturbing, it does make me appreciate what I have and what our world could become if we don’t…. Okay, I don’t know what to do about it. But, I do believe that a problem identified is a problem half solved.
  2. John Hoyle December 12th, 2008 10:40 am :I was overwhelmed with emotion when I first read this story and saw those photos of cold, foggy despair. While I understand that many of the folks parking in these big-box store lots are not “homeless,” but like you and Claire, just “passing through,” the very fact that so many families are forced to do this just to survive brings shame upon America. I really hope that this story gets wider distribution as other bloggers and readers pass it on to their friends. It is an article that needs to be read and considered.
  3. Leatha December 13th, 2008 3:53 pm :Wow Bob, You and Claire have an awesome way of relating the circumstances round about you. An insight most of us sadly miss. I appreciate the opportunity to see things as though through your eyes. I feel I come away wiser. There is so much out there beyond “us” isn’t there? I have 1 question though. How do you avoid depression over the tragic things you observe? Isn’t there a sense of hellplessness? Reading this article is almost like deja vu.


The New Homeless — 3 Comments

  1. Hi Bob and Claire,

    Met you both at Death Valley Junction, CA where I was live capture rescuing the wild burros of Death Valley National Park that were being shot by park rangers. Great respect and many kudos for your gifts of adventure and insights concerning the good and bad of the human condition.

    During the winter of 1994/1995, I spent two months locating, observing and living next to the wild burro herds of CA, AZ and Nevada. During that time I lived in a small camper mounted on the bed of my truck and was always in search of camping sites. I was blown away by the numerous transient working families who lived in rather large encampments on public lands next to enclaves of wealthy people who provided them with menial work.

    I remember arriving in Sedona, AZ where I thought I could find some kindred spirits with whom I could share my mission and enjoy some camaraderie. Instead, I was greeted by a community defined and fueled by greed and profit. Fortunately, on my way out of town, I met a couple driving a small motor home who took me three miles to a desert encampment inhabited by families who provided sevices to Sedona. The Sedona community depended on these nomadic families for labor, but wanted nothing else to do with them. I found similar, but much larger encampments at Lake Meade and elsewhere throughout my travels across the southwest.

    Presently there is rapidly growing homelessness in rural America where many families are living in vehicles and in clusters of abandoned trailors. Small struggling rural communities have no funds, shelters or programs to meet this growing problem. Thousands of these rural homeless families are barely surviving.

    I could go on and on describing this dismal situation with stories and observations of homeless conditions which is no more or less dire than the plight of the mentally ill and other innocent victims of social injustice. Worst of all, for me, is the death and destruction that humankind is waging on the earth and its’ nonhuman inhabitants.

    Bob and Claire, when I met you we were all on a mission to improve the human condition, each in our own way. I am heartened to know that we continue to share this common journey. I know that your incredible adventures are not motivated by self-indulgence, but by your desire to enhance the human spirit by inspiring others.

    I believe we understand that the journey is, in most cases, more significant than the destination. The journey is how we live, our lifestyle and values. I respect and celebrate how you both live and journey.

    I just wanted to let you know that inspiring each other those many years ago, I continue on that path. I live a vegan cruelty-free, minimalist lifestyle on 43 acres of protected meadows, wetland and forest located in southwestern WA. Now that I have reached the age of 71, after decades of fighting the “good” fight, I am considering my next campaign. Could be “putting pen to paper” not yet decided.

    Happy Trails,

    Gene Chontos

  2. Gene,

    How great to hear from you after all these years! Yes, we are still on the path you so eloquently described in your comment. We are working on a task everyone tells us is impossible, riding our tandem (same one) from North Korea to South Korea. So far we have met with nothing but discouragement from every contact we have made. But that just makes us more determined. Maybe not this year, or next year, but someday it will be possible, or maybe it will lead us to another opportunity. Know that you have made a difference. Few can really say that.

    Bob and Claire

  3. I’m looking for homeless families living in walmart parking lots in cars or rv’s. I want to find one family in need of real and lasting transformation. I will help them do it in a radical way. I will repeat as often as I am able. Las Vegas area, for now. I want others to do this nationwide. who’s down to help?

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