What It’s Really Like to Live in the Walmart Parking Lot

At the end of each busy day of customers bustling through the stores, Walmart takes on a completely separate purpose. It provides a place for the weary to lay their heads for the night: Its parking lots.

Thousands of people choose to spend the night in Walmart parking lots each year. Some are passing through town and realize they can save a buck by not booking a hotel. Others have a less of a choice and are there because they have nowhere else to go. Through it all, the hosting of overnight guests is fine by Walmart, in most locations. One writer referred to it as a kind of urban campground.

Sleeping in RVs, vans, trucks, compact cars

RV trailer in the badlands

People sleep in what they can. | Kent Weakley/iStock/Getty Images

A recent article in The New York Times called “Overnight in Walmart Parking Lots: Silence, Solace and Refuge” featured photographs taken in the summer of 2017 by photographers Mike Belleme and George Etheredge. The two slept in a cargo van for several nights in different Walmart parking lots in the South.

Featured in the article were people from all walks of life who found themselves spending the night in Walmart parking lots – either for convenience or out of desperation. They slept in RVs, vans, trucks, and even compact cars.

“You’re going to see a lot of folks out here running from something,” one man in Asheville, North Carolina told Belleme and Etheredge. “For the first time in my life, I’m not running from anything. I guess I was running from myself.”

Next: First, here’s what Walmart says about staying overnight in its parking lots.

Walmart’s overnight parking policy

Walmart allows RV parking on a store-by-store basis. | Joe Raedle/Getty Images

In the FAQ section on Walmart’s website, the retailer explains why it allows people to park RVs in its parking lots overnight:

While we do not offer electrical service or accommodations typically necessary for RV customers, Walmart values RV travelers and considers them among our best customers. Consequently, we do permit RV parking on our store parking lots as we are able. Permission to park is extended by individual store managers, based on availability of parking space and local laws. Please contact management in each store to ensure accommodations before parking your RV.

Next: The real reason why Walmart camping is so popular.

 It’s free, it’s free, and it’s free

Sleeping in Walmart parking lots can be the ticket for those who wish to spend extensive time traveling but would not be able to afford staying night-after-night at hotels or motels for months on end.

“Why in the world would anybody want to sleep a night in a Walmart parking lot?” asked a woman named Jerika who, on YouTube, has documented her travels around the United States in a minivan. “The reason why is because it’s free, and it’s free, and it’s free, and it’s free. We wanted to travel full time for a year-ish. It’s one of the ways to make it feasible because it can get expensive always going to campgrounds and motels, hotels.”

Next: Walmart parking lots are a haven for the homeless.

A haven for the homeless

The Walmart overnight policy may very well be a godsend for the down-and-out. Those who live in cars often need a place to park and sleep at night. These folks often can be found joining the droves of travelers in RVs who make the Walmart parking lot their overnight home.

Photographer Nolan Conway spent three weeks one summer sleeping in a car outside two Walmart stores in Flagstaff, Arizona, taking pictures and talking with those around him. “An unintended consequence of [Walmart’s RV] policy is that people without homes have taken up permanent residence in their vehicles alongside the people who are just passing though,” Conway wrote.

Conway photographed various homeless people who, due to injuries and other unfortunate circumstances, found themselves living in cars, trucks, and buses – and sleeping in the Walmart parking lot at night.

Next: Do all Walmart stores allow overnight parking?

Why some Walmarts prohibit overnight guests

RV recreational vehicles at Walmart

Double check before you camp. | crwpitman/iStock/Getty Images

Of the more than 5,000 Walmart locations nationwide, about 77% of the stores do allow overnight parking, according to the website Walmart Locator. The site provides a lookup feature by which one can check which Walmart locations do and do not allow for overnight parking.

One reason certain Walmart stores may enforce such a ban is some cities prohibit people from sleeping overnight in their vehicles. A survey of 187 cities conducted in 2014 by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty revealed that 81 of them banned sleeping in vehicles. This figure was up 119% from 2011, when 37 of the cities banned sleeping in vehicles.

Another reason some Walmart locations may not allow people to sleep in the parking lot overnight is they are situated in popular tourist areas; as such, allowing anyone to spend the night could become overwhelming.

Next: The ABCs of RV camping at Walmart

The ABCs of RV Camping at Walmart

Chuck Woodbury, the editor of RVTravel.com, says the upside of spending the night in your RV in a Walmart parking lot is you’ll save the $30 to $40 nightly cost of staying in an RV park. Another perk is the convenience of being able to restock your supplies or grab breakfast right at Walmart.

Woodbury listed some rules of thumb:

  1. Pick a spot to stay in a far corner of the parking lot. Do not pull out the awning on an RV or sit outside the RV on lawn chairs. Do not use a grill.
  2. Keep the parking lot clean, and take your trash with you when you leave.
  3. Keep an eye out for trouble, and only open your door overnight to the police or a Walmart security guard.
  4. Ask the store manager ahead of time if it’s OK to stay. Only stay one night, two at the most, at a given Walmart location.
  5. Do not attempt to spend the night anyway if there are signs at a Walmart that say “no overnight parking.”

“This is not camping,” Woodbury said. “It’s not pretty. There are no pine trees, no bubbling brook, no ocean beach. The idea of staying at Walmart is to park for the night, get some sleep, and then move on.”

Next: Another business allows for overnight parking lot guests.

 Boondocking at Cracker Barrel

For the uninitiated, “boondocking” is living in one’s RV without electric, water, or sewer hook-ups. Other than some Walmart locations, another place where people in RVs are allowed to spend the night is Cracker Barrel. According to reports, the restaurant generally allows the practice, and good RV etiquette is to call the particular Cracker Barrel where you wish to spend the night and ask the manager for permission.

In addition, eating a meal (or two) at the restaurant is often considered a gesture of thanks for the management’s hospitality.

Next: Employees have slept in this Silicon Valley giant’s parking lot.

Google employees call company parking lot home

On a related note, employees of Google, headquartered in Mountain View, California, have been known to sleep in their vehicles in the company’s parking lot on a long-term basis. One employee, identified as Brandon S., started doing so in 2015. Brandon explained to the media he had purchased a truck to live in as an alternative to paying the high rent for which the area is known. Without paying rent, he would be able to pay off his student loan much more quickly. He took advantage of the free onsite meals Google offers to employees, the employee laundry service, and Google’s gym for workouts and showers.

Brandon, who documented his story on his personal blog, said he was originally inspired by the story of Ben Discoe, another Google employee who had previously lived in a conversion van in the company’s parking lot. Luckily for Brandon, he didn’t encounter trouble with Google security personnel during the time he lived in the parking lot. The worst that happened was three months into it, they did cross-check his car’s registration file in the company database, The Washington Post reported.

Another Google employee, Pete D’Andrea, and his wife Kara lived in the Google parking lot in a Winnebago for one-and-a-half to two years. “There are other people doing the same thing,” he said. “I see RVs in the parking lot all the time. We’re not the only ones.” By living rent-free, the couple saved 80% of their income and eventually purchased a house.

Next: Other places you might be able to stay overnight for free.

Other places that might allow boondocking

Shoppers leave a Sam's Club store

Sam’s Club | Scott Olson/Getty Images

While you should always ask permission to stay overnight on commercial property and use good judgement, here is a list to get you started, according to AboutRving.

  • Sam’s Club
  • Flying J truck stops
  • Fred Meyer
  • Food Lion
  • Bass Pro Shops
  • Cabela’s
  • Lowe’s
  • Home Depot
  • Some malls
  • Some organizations like VFW and American Legion
  • Most casinos

 

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