Walmart’s longstanding policy of allowing people to park overnight at its stores have turned the lots into impromptu American camping spots, a home for everything from teenage carousing to radio broadcasts.
But for some Northern California residents displaced by the recent wildfires, a Walmart parking lot in Chico, California, has become a refuge from disaster. Dozens of people are living in tents and cars at what has become a destination for volunteers, donations, and even a food truck offering free meals.
People who were displaced by the fire first started gathering in the Walmart lot because “we have the space,” said Tiffany Wilson, a Walmart spokeswoman. “A community started to develop,” she said, and then “donations started to pour in, and then more and more people started to come” for the access to food and clothing. Now people are stopping by to drop off things like trailers and boxes of diapers.
Around 52,000 people have been displaced by the fires, and about 1,400 people are “jammed in” to about a dozen local shelters, the San Francisco Chronicle reports.
Walmart put out portable toilets in the lot last weekend as more people showed up and has been distributing water bottles and free tents. “Being around other folks and sharing stories has been healing” for the people in the parking lot, Wilson said, and “folks keep coming.”
Local shelters and local churches are doing what they can, but “everyone feels like they’re not getting as much help as they need,” she added said. If “you walk around the crowd [in the Chico parking lot] people are saying ‘I don’t know where else to go.’” Some people with pets are afraid they won’t be allowed into a shelter at all, she said.
A rumor circulated in recent days that Walmart would be kicking people out, alarming the people there and volunteers who were passing out food and water:
That’s just not true, Wilson said.
“Walmart is not kicking anyone out and Walmart has not set a deadline,” she said. “We are happy to have been able to support the community. We have associates that have lost their homes and loved ones.”
The company is, however, “concerned about the health and safety of everyone there,” she added. It’s forecast to rain in the area in coming days, she said and “with the weather coming it is not a good place to be long term.” The store is encouraging “everyone to move as soon as possible to a place that is safe and out of the elements.” More shelter space has opened at a local fairgrounds to house the people who have been staying in the Walmart parking lot.
The fires are confirmed to have killed more than 70 people, hundreds of homes have been destroyed, and more than 1,000 people are still missing.