[Hpn] SFGate: BAY AREA/For many, Wal-Mart lots feel like home/Retailer lets RV owners sleep by stores -- cities getting antsy

William Tinker wtinker@metrocast.net
Mon, 19 Jul 2004 11:11 -0700

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Monday, July 19, 2004 (SF Chronicle)
BAY AREA/For many, Wal-Mart lots feel like home/Retailer lets RV owners sleep by stores -- cities getting antsy
Maria Alicia Gaura, Chronicle Staff Writer

   The parking lot surrounding the Napa Wal-Mart store is hot and windy, but
after a long trek from Kansas City, it looks like home to the Jandle
   Full-time RVers who live on the road with their two young children,
traveling salespeople Kim and Robert Jandle frequently park their well-
appointed, 34-foot trailer overnight next to a Wal-Mart store.
   "We have stayed at many a Wal-Mart over the past year," said Kim Jandle,
34, who explained that the family returns to its house in Atlanta to do
things like swap winter for summer clothes. "It's clean and safe, and
there's usually one within a mile of the interstate."
   They're seldom alone. Not just full-time road wanderers but vacationers,
workers with killer commutes and even homeless people park for a day or
two --
   or longer -- outside the sprawling stores.
   In the Bay Area, however, where Wal-Mart's very presence has proved
controversial, the welcome mat outside some stores is being rolled up.
   For years, Wal-Mart has allowed travelers to park overnight, or even for a
couple of days, outside stores for free. It's an unwritten policy that
used to be passed just by word of mouth and now is spread on the Internet,
   "We consider it a courtesy to our customers," Wal-Mart Stores Inc.
spokeswoman Sharon Weber said. "We think of our stores as a home away from
home, and we try and welcome people when we can."
   The welcoming attitude of the company, which has almost 3,000 locations
nationwide, has been a boon to travelers of all stripes, from traveling
salespeople like the Jandles, who sell RV cleaning supplies, to the
seasonal flocks of Florida-bound snowbirds.
   But in pricey California, with its soaring housing costs, the homeless,
working poor and even middle-class workers are sharing the Wal-Mart lots
with footloose retirees and vacationing families.
   As worries about long-term encampments mount, more and more cities are
forcing Wal-Mart to limit or prohibit overnight stays.
   Information technology specialist James Hirtzel, 32, parks his compact
camper in a far corner of the Milpitas Wal-Mart lot several times a week.
He used to sleep outside the Mountain View store but was recently asked to
stop parking there.
   "It was only five minutes from my job, but one morning I woke up and found
a nice, congenial note on my windshield saying, 'Please don't park
overnight,' " Hirtzel said. "So I left and started coming here."
   Hirtzel isn't homeless. He and his wife own a house in Sacramento, and
their combined incomes add up to six figures. But the couple have three
children, and even with two salaries, they say they can't afford to live
closer to the Mountain View pharmaceutical firm where Hirtzel works.
   So he outfitted a used camper with satellite TV and a Playstation 2, and
spends most weeknights away from his family.
   "It's not ideal," he said. "But like a lot of people here, I'm trying to
make ends meet."
   New Mexico retirees Valhalla and Clarence Depillo hit the road in their
artistically renovated school-bus camper this summer and have stayed in
Wal- Mart lots throughout the Southwest. They had not encountered any
restrictions in staying overnight until they got to California.
   "California is a profitable state, and the feeling is that you should have
to pay for everything," said Valhalla, who creates costumes for actors at
Renaissance Faires. "It is kind of stupid to ban overnight camping. I'm
sure the merchants do profit from it."
   In fact, the campers who stay at Wal-Mart tend to be intensely loyal to
the company, buying something at every stop and even planning their trips
around Wal-Mart locations.
   A 35-year-old woman named Cory, whose family has lived outside the
Milpitas Wal-Mart for almost two years since losing their home, says store
employees have been unfailingly kind to her, despite complaints about her
battered camper. She reciprocates by shopping exclusively at Wal-Mart.
   "They see me so much, they always ask why I'm not working there," said
Cory, who lives with her husband and two young children and asked that her
last name not be used. "The truth is, we have nowhere else to go."
   The camping issue has become a sideshow of larger debates recently over
whether Wal-Mart should be allowed to expand in such Bay Area locales as
Gilroy and Contra Costa County. The company has about 10 stores in the Bay
   Managers at about half the local Wal-Mart stores contacted said camping
has been banned at their locations. Others said one or two nights would be
fine, even while warning that police might ask campers to move along.
   San Jose bans overnight camping at all retail locations in the city, a
zoning rule that predated Wal-Mart's arrival in the city, spokesman David
Vossbrink said.
   And Gilroy, which recently approved Wal-Mart's application to build a 24-
hour supercenter, banned camping as a condition of approval.
   "We had a problem with an encampment developing at the existing Wal-Mart
store," Gilroy city planner Melissa Durkin said. "Garbage was
accumulating, and campers were putting out permanent-type furniture like
picnic tables. At the new site, there will be signs stating that overnight
stays are illegal."
   Those in the RV community warn campers that bad behavior will eventually
force more Wal-Marts to crack down. Lists of Wal-Mart camping etiquette
posted online urge people to be inconspicuous, clean up the area, check in
with the manager and buy something at every stop. Campers should not
unfurl awnings, put out lawn chairs or grills, or take up more space than
necessary, the guidelines advise.
   "When you walk up to my trailer, you can't tell if I'm there," Hirtzel
said. "That's the way it should be. We don't want to lose this."
   Rosalinda Jalique, 61, spends many afternoons listening to the radio in
her small camper while her husband, Vincent, works full time in the
oil-change shop at the Milpitas Wal-Mart.
   Jalique came to San Jose from the Philippines 32 years ago and raised her
children there. But for the past two years, the Jaliques have lived in
their camper, alternating nights at Wal-Mart with nights at their Catholic
church and outside the home of her son.
   "I like it here. It's nice, it's safe, and the security people are very
nice," she said. "I go to the bookstore, I listen to music and read recipe
books. I have a stove here, and I like to cook.
   "And I always shop at Wal-Mart," Jalique laughed. "I get a 10 percent
   E-mail Maria Alicia Gaura at mgaura@sfchronicle.com. ----------------------------------------------------------------------
Copyright 2004 SF Chronicle