For some in the US, Walmart isn't just a supermarket, but also a place to call home... meet the homeless living in its car parks.
Airdate: 
Tuesday, July 15, 2014 - 21:30
Channel: 
SBS

With almost 5,000 stores blanketing the United States, millions pass through Walmart's doors every day. But for some Americans, this isn't just a superstore - it's a place to call home.

Since the housing crisis began, the world's biggest company is becoming better known as a safe haven for the country's homeless.

No one knows exactly how many people are living out of their cars, but with well over a million on the streets these car parks have become de facto shelters.

Nick Lazaredes reports on Walmart's car park dwellers living in the shadow of the retail giant.

Nick talks to SBS World News Radio about his story below, with more background to the kind of people who end up living in Walmart car parks.

Joe Thorpey is one of the people in Nick's story - he's lived at the Walmart in Flagstaff, Arizona, for seven years. In the video extra for the Dateline website above, he tells his own story of being homeless and describes what it's like living in a Walmart car park. And a few weeks after this story was broadcast, Joe Thorpey found accommodation enabling him to finally leave the Walmart car park.

Interview With Nick

Nick talks to Kristina Kukolja from SBS World News Radio about his story, with more background to the kind of people who end up living in Walmart car parks.

Resources

Transcript

With almost 5,000 stores blanketing the United States, millions pass through Walmart's doors every day. But for some Americans this isn't just a super-store, but a place to call home.

 

NOLAN CONWAY: Morning Joe.

JOE THORPEY: Morning guys.

NOLAN CONWAY: How are you?

JOE THORPEY: Okay, how are you?

In Flagstaff, Arizona, Joe Thorpey is waking up at Walmart.

NOLAN CONWAY: Want to go and get a coffee?

JOE THORPEY: Yeah, sure. Let's do it. I'm game.

Joe is homeless and has lived in the Walmart car park for the past seven years.

JOE THORPEY: Yes, it's cheaper when you just get a refill.

Joe is one of tens of thousands of people taking advantage of a little-publicised Walmart policy - allowing travellers to pull up in their car parks and stay the night for free.

JOE THORPEY: It can get pretty harsh up here. I've been here, I know. I've had my car. You know without that I never would have made it. I'd be in a shelter. I don't like the shelters.

Joe travelled to Arizona for work but a back injury left him jobless and on the streets. Unable to get social security he's been forced to live out of his car.

JOE THORPEY: A lot of homeless people aren't bad people. They could be normal people. I thought I was halfway normal, you know, before I started living this way.

While Joe has nowhere else to go, makeshift Walmart communities like this one are attracting Americans from all walks of life.

NOLAN CONWAY: I do a mix in the morning, unsweetened cereal.

In another corner of the car park, Nolan Conway is also starting his day at Walmart.

NOLAN CONWAY: Good morning. I'm good, thank you. I'm a photographer and I'm doing a little project called Waking up at Walmart.

This professional photographer is so intrigued by the Walmart phenomenon he's been documenting its car park communities for the New York Times.

NOLAN CONWAY: This overnight coacher is for everyone. You have people there, who are there out of necessity and people who are there out of convenience and both of their stories are equally valid.

Hal and Jackie are typical grey nomads. Staying at Walmart is ingrained in the RV culture as a cheap and effective way to see the country.

HAL: We were going to make this loop, do California and back over to here. We like Walmart. We like it a lot. It's convenient and you've got everything you need inside the store.

But most here have no choice but to stay.

NOLAN CONWAY: Can you put your cigarette out?

Since the housing crisis began the world's biggest company is becoming better known as a safe haven for America's homeless. No-one knows exactly how many people are living out of their cars, but with well over one million on the streets these car parks have become streets these car parks have become defacto shelters.

 

PAUL: It's good, it's just a little cold in the winter. It gets around 20 below out here, so it's a little bit cold. Colder than you want to be.

Paul sleeps on the ground next to his friend's truck and has been living like this on and off for three years. Today he's earning some much-needed cash as Nolan's assistant.

PAUL: Arizona is a right-to-work state. They call it a right right to work for nothing state.

REPORTER: Can you survive in America on minimum wage these days?

PAUL: No, absolutely not.

Paul is not the only one stuck in a rut. A week ago Michelle and Brandon swapped their car for this old school bus and it's already broken down.

BRANDON: We have to pull the old radiator out and drop a new one in and hope for the best.

Michelle and Brandon have travelled to California with their daughter Enola in search for a better life.

 

MICHELLE: This is where my cousin sleeps. Our bedroom is in the back. Everything is tied in with chain or strap or bunji, so nothing shifts.

REPORTER: Where are the chickens?

MICHELLE: Right here.

BRANDON: This is Ruby, that's my hen.

Michelle and Brandon say they fled California worried they will lose custody of their baby. Three of their children have already been taken by social services.

MICHELLE: They're so racist out there. We call it the war on the homeless. They're so anti-homeless out there. It's a war. And people like me that are sober and don't do drugs and want to get off the streets and have a home and do right by themselves, you know, as soon as we start getting those things going for ourselves, they will do whatever they can to come in and fuck you up.

For the time being all Michelle can think about is getting her family back together.

MICHELLE: I don't know legal stuff, I don't. I'm having to learn all this stuff the hard way. So we've been looking for loopholes, how to get our family back together any way with can, even if we have to piece it together one baby at a time, so be it.

Local charity worker Richard Dufresne has been watching the swelling numbers of Walmart's homeless and last year he decided to help out.

RICHARD DUFRESNE: We tried to make it between 5-700 calories, enough to keep someone going for a day. And then invite. Everybody is invited to our church.

REPORTER: Do you get many takers?

RICHARD DUFRESNE: No, not one.

Every summer homeless from elsewhere in Arizona flood into Flagstaff for its cooler weather, causing the local shelters to overflow and with virtually no public housing, this car park is often their only resort.

RICHARD DUFRESNE: I think it's a crossroad for travellers and I think people come here looking for work and they can't find it. A lot of them move on down the road. A lot of them are stuck now, because they've gone through the resources.

For years in Flagstaff, sleeping overnight in your vehicle was technically illegal. Recently the city's mayor changed the law.

 

JERRY NABOURS, FLAGSTAFF MAYOR: I think I'd rather have them in a Walmart parking lot than out by the side of the road or off the highway somewhere where they're not as well protected and there just doesn't seem to be any trouble spending the night in Walmart. I saw no reason why the city should prohibit it.

LIZ SOUZA: In this place, our motor caught on fire.

NOLAN CONWAY: Really? They're working on it?

LIZ SOUZA: Yes, my friend went to start it and it shot off flames and they had to put it out. I was scared.

Liz Sousa is from Washington State and a regular at the Flagstaff Walmart. Every year she drives south for the Arizona summer.

LIZ SOUZA: This is convenient for me to be up here in the summertime and have a place where I can park, where I don't have to be stuck with paying rent to somebody.

Liz is an aspiring actress and from her RV she's chasing the Hollywood dream.

LIZ SOUZA: That's professionally taken. I get some of my prints done here at Walmart because it's cheaper. I really don't have anybody that is co-ordinating me because everybody is - usually what I do is I go on the Internet and have a list of casting directors and I send myself out with resumes. If I hear anything back, then I hear something, but I've been doing this for years. I never heard anything. I never heard anything.

NOLAN CONWAY: How is it going, Joe?

For those down on their luck this Walmart car park is a welcome refuge, but many, like Joe Thorpey end up trapped here.

NOLAN CONWAY: Have you seen this yet?

JOE THORPEY: I got the magazine in the car.

NOLAN CONWAY: You do? Hey.

Joe was photographed by Nolan last year.

JOE THORPEY: About a year ago.

NOLAN CONWAY: That's the old car. That was the old station wagon.

JOE THORPEY: The car saved my tail many times you know.

Since his photo was taken Joe is still on the waiting list for public housing.

JOE THORPEY: I ain't getting no younger out here. I came out here when I was 46. I'm 55 now. I feel like it's taken a toll on me, you know. I'm tired.

Joe is surviving on foot stamps and the questionable charity of a local casino that provides free transport, food and gambling chips to Flagstaff's down and outers.

JOE THORPEY: They give you free food, food voucher for the buffet and everything like this, and $15 in free play and it didn't cost nothing and you get to play the slots or whatever. And I was winning money. It's like, what the heck, man, this is cool, you know, it's not costing, I'm eating and everything. I kind of got hooked after a while.

Joe's now addicted to gambling, but it gets worse. After test driving a new vehicle for a few free gambling chips, Joe was talked into trading in his truck for a new car he can't afford.

 

REPORTER: So what do your homeless friends think about the car?

JOE THORPEY: Why am I still here? You know, they figure, yeah, you got a new car, man, you're going to get out of here. He's moving up the ladder now and I don't know, I'm still here. It's like, I don't know where else to go. I don't have no money to go, you know, anywhere else.

When he can scratch a few dollars for petrol, Joe escapes the Walmart crowds for a nearby forest. Like all the others stuck at Walmart, he's looking for a way to turn his life around.

 

JOE THORPEY: This is something that from being in the forrest, you know? Seeing them like this, I drew it that way. I could get better, you know, I'm like an amateur. With paint and that I think I could, I might be able to do better. Get where I could sell them.

With his new car and a place to park it, for the moment Joe is okay, but time is running out. The casino wants his money and he's likely to lose the car within weeks.

JOE THORPEY: I used to have a life and I think that's what makes it hard for me. Sometimes I feel guilty because of it, you know, being in situation. I'm not alone. Anybody can go homeless. Everybody is one step away from that actually.

With his luck running out, Joe faces an uncertain future, but for tonight, like the thousands of other Americans, Walmart is his home.

 

Reporter/Camera
Nick Lazaredes

Producer
Calliste Weitenberg

Editors
Wayne Love
Simon Phegan

Stills courtesy of Nolan Conway
Walmart vision courtesy of Walmart

15th July 2014