The aging RV was parked under a stately tree providing relief from the 90-degree midday heat.
Outside the passenger door, a woman was stooped over carefully pouring water from one container to another outside of the RV where various odds and ends were stacked in a pile.
The driver’s seat was stacked high with boxes. Just a stone’s throw away was another old RV loaded to the gills. A third, sleeker and newer RV was parked nearby as well.
It was just your typical RV campground, right? Guess again. It was the parking lot at the Manteca Wal-Mart. And the RVs were nestled under trees right at one of the main entrances to Manteca – the Main Street/120 Bypass interchange.
The RV with stuff stacked on the driver’s seat has been there for at least three days. One passerby claims it has been at least a week.
Several websites contend the Manteca store is OK to camp overnight.
Too bad that doesn’t jive with Manteca Municipal Code 12.20.030 regarding unlawful camping. While camping per se isn’t absolutely outlawed on private property, it is limited to just one night. Anything beyond that requires an OK from the police chief. But even then, the police chief cannot issue temporary camping permits for a total period in excess of 10 days within any 90-day period.
But here’s the kicker. The permit has to be denied if the applicant is not a bona fide resident of the City of Manteca, the proposed location is not on a street adjacent to the applicant’s residence and if the out-of-town guest is not the applicant’s guest.
While the code section was adopted before Wal-Mart started allowing RV camping in its parking lots, it clearly makes camping for more than one night illegal anywhere in Manteca unless the person has a permit and they meet narrow restrictions.
The illegal Wal-Mart camping was brought up in a voice message left by a longtime Manteca resident. He doesn’t believe – and rightfully so – that it speaks well to Manteca as a community to allow a homeless encampment at a major entrance to Manteca.
Given the fact the city is spending close to $3.7 million in federal funds to spruce up the 120 Bypass and Highway 99 corridors with landscaping one would think the last thing they would tolerate is essentially a homeless encampment on wheels.
On Monday an informal poll of four shoppers at Wal-Mart found empathy for the homeless, but only to a degree. Two pointed out that other cities in the region don’t allow Wal-Mart to “trash up” their parking lots with overnight camping.
And in defense of the city, they have dispersed resources to tear apart homeless encampments around town from time to time, including one that was on the other side of the fence where the aging RV is now parked. The camp was located along Caltrans right-of-way in a bunch of shrubs.
Wal-Mart does have security on site. The municipal code isn’t that difficult to access via the city’s website. Good corporate citizens would follow municipal laws or at least require their guests not to set up shop by piling junk outside of their vehicles.
Why, you might ask, is this issue? After all the city has dozens upon dozens of laws on the books they choose not to enforce including their recently adopted restrictions on the number of flag banner signs and where they can be placed.
Let such campers get a beachhead and it can derail attempts to pump up the economic vitality of a community. Santa Cruz languished for years in their downtown district after investing millions rebuilding after the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake. The homeless literally took over the downtown area until that city finally stepped up enforcement of various anti-vagrancy laws.
So where do the homeless go?
It’s a legitimate question that elected leaders should debate and not be a de facto decision made by a retailer opting to ignore city laws.
Perhaps the far southeast corner of the Wal-Mart parking lot is the right place for a homeless encampment. Perhaps Manteca can work with the folks in Bentonville and issue them a use permit with the proviso they create a landscaped buffer where the homeless can pitch tents or park dilapidated RVs and set up housekeeping. The city might want to require them to have sanitary facilities and running water as well.
One of the driving forces behind the anti-camping law is public health and safety. If Wal-Mart is willing to allow it then perhaps Manteca should count their lucky stars and have the company that Sam Walton built do it right.
The Depression had Hoovervilles. The Great Recession could have Walmartvilles.
This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA. He can be contacted at email@example.com or 209-249-3519.