There’s a reason it’s the largest retailer in the world — Walmart attracts hundreds of millions of shoppers every week. But for a tiny percentage of that number, Walmart is attractive for other reasons. For them, Walmart isn't just an errand — it's home.
How did the stores became a haven for the homeless? Through a combination of policy and lore.
Officially, Walmart does allow overnight RV parking when available. Individual store managers have the authority to allow overnight parking, based on space availability and local laws.
In Austin there are two stores that explicitly forbid overnight camping, the Ben White and Northcross locations. But all the other local Walmart parking lots are available, including the one at 183 and I-35.
“Who doesn’t go to Walmart? So, I mean, that’s how we wound up here," said Tony, who asked that KUT not use his last name. "We just thought like, ‘Hey, where is somewhere you can go to, and also be able to run to the bathroom or get food, and people won’t really bother you? So, hey, what else is there to do besides Walmart?’”
The 27-year-old St. Louis native moved to Austin to be with his girlfriend. Somewhere along the line, she lost her job, and they couldn’t keep their apartment. The couple has been calling their Toyota Camry home for the last eight months. It’s parked – along with a few dozen other vehicles – at the Walmart at 183 and I-35. He said most other customers don’t notice their presence.
“People tend to overlook homelessness, and everyone thinks that when you’re homeless you just don’t care about yourself. When in reality, a lot of people that you see out here, they don’t stay all day. They actually get up and go to work. They actually move around to make their lives better. Some homeless people are comfortable with their situation. Most homeless people aren’t. Everyone’s a step away from homelessness, and people fail to realize that.”
Tony works at a convenience store, making just shy of $9 an hour. He said their situation is only temporary and maintaining a routine is the only way to not let it become permanent.
“You wake up, find somewhere to get yourself freshened up. I mean, being fresh is one of the biggest things. It keeps you kind of civil," he said. "Then after that, get ready for work.”
Though, that's not without the occasional indulgence.
“You try to do things like get a hotel room when you can afford it, something that allows you to feel like you’re part of reality again. When you’re homeless, you feel like you’re unplugged from life.”
Alan Graham is founder and CEO of Mobile Loaves and Fishes, a group that has provided meals and services to the Austin-area homeless since 1998. He said their food trucks visit Walmart parking lots several times a week.
“Customers of Walmart probably get wigged out a little bit by people sleeping in their cars in the Walmart parking lot. So, management is probably constantly having to navigate that situation. I’m sure it’s complex for management. But God bless them for continuing to allow that,” Graham said.
Across town at the Slaughter Lane and I-35 Walmart, another community has grown.
Trenda McMillan has been homeless for more than 20 years. She’s spent some of that time in Houston, some out west in California and New Mexico. She currently sleeps at the South Park Meadows Walmart in a 1983 Chevy Caprice station wagon. She and her three dogs have stayed here off and on through the years. She said her current stint has lasted three months so far. Walmarts are generally open, she said, as long as you are mobile.
“As long you pick up your trash and you’re not making yourself too much at home,” Trenda said. “With my problem, my car’s broke down. It used to be you could work on your car here. Last year my car broke down and, the security, I had three days to get my car fixed. They’ve changed security now, so now you can’t even do that.”
Her car’s rear differential is broken. A replacement sits across the top the luggage rack on the car. If only she had access to a mechanic — an ASE-master certified mechanic with 25 or 30 years of experience, perhaps — like Jim. Jim also lives in the South Park Meadows Walmart parking lot.
He keeps his tools in his Ford Ranger pickup, which is where he sleeps with his two cats. He runs his own mobile mechanic business.
“She desperately needs some parts that fit it. She’s had a couple different guys that have told her that they would work on it, but she won’t let me work on it until… I’m not sure exactly why.”
There’s a fairly tight-knit community here. Trenda said at least one car has been on the lot for three years.
Benjamin Roberts and his girlfriend have only been living on the street for three months. They’re not only homeless, but carless. He said Trenda has helped show them some of the things you have to do to survive. And being next to a Walmart helps with little and big things, like Wi-Fi.
“I come up here. I get on my computer, and I zone out and get back into the real world. I’m getting my bachelor’s in computer information technology with an emphasis in network administration.”
According to Roberts, he also might have another job soon, making his stay here perhaps more temporary.
And then there’s Vernon Rust.
He and his partner Helen Bird are part of the mosaic at the South Park Walmart, even though they say they are only there when they need to shop.
“Walmart last year let me know that they no longer required my presence in the parking lot. We’re kind of an eyesore. So we’re not even supposed to be here really. But, we’re dangerous livers, you know. We just came in to spend some money.”
Vernon’s from Nashville, and Bird is from the UK. They began living on the streets in Tennessee battling addiction before making their way to Austin. And, then, a twist of fate.
“For some reason, Scotty McCreery, this little kid off American Idol, recorded a song I’d written way back in the day for Keith Urban’s first album called ‘The Ranch.’ We had enough money for things we needed. We got this on Craigslist for about $6,000.”
"This" is the couple's 1989 Ford Econoline RV.
It turns out nearly 20 years ago, Rust was a rising songwriter for a young Keith Urban and other country performers. The song McCreery recorded after winning American Idol, called "Walkin' the Country," also paid for a computer and Rust’s ganjo – that’s a banjo with a guitar neck. And, it affords Bird and Rust a night or two in a state park.
“Shower up and do all the necessaries and camp out for a couple of days legally. And then come back for the odd night.”
While leaving the parking lots will be harder for some than others, everyone living there has a plan to get out.
Alan Graham of Mobile Loaves and Fishes said lack of credit, job history, current skills and health problems are just a few of the hurdles they’ll face.
“Even the most successful people on the planet rely on an army of support in order to get them to the top. And so when you have no one to help push you up that steep mountain, it just becomes very difficult.”
Until then, they’ll have each other, and whatever is left behind in the parking lot.