Quinn scoffs when I ask him if he worries about getting hit by a car. “They [meaning his fellow panhandlers] get run over ’cause they get drunk,” says Quinn. He says he’s too smart to be struck by a careening car. Besides, he adds, “I make more in the middle [of the street].” Quinn and I are talking in the CVS parking lot on West Valley Parkway. Bluish clouds are drooping overhead, and cars are speeding nearby — either to turn into the lot to shop at Albertson’s or Big Lots or to leave it.
As I was waiting for the light to change at the T-section of West Valley and Home Depot Center, I got fed up with the bums who park themselves on the double-yellow line. I almost hit one once, and I thought the middle-aged guy clutching a cardboard sign was too close to my car. It made me nervous.
I thought about the empty streets and parking lots that used to be in the Del Dios neighborhood when I moved here in 1994. Our current homeless problem didn’t start with the recession, it began years ago when Interfaith Community Services moved to the west side of Escondido.
Fed up with the way the bum kept peering into my driver’s side window, I had rolled the window down to ask him if the police ever get on him for standing in the middle of the street.
He reminds me of a scroungy Jim Belushi when he says, “Oh, yeah, all the time.”
I ask what they do about it, but the light changes. Amidst the confusion, the car behind me gives me a toot. I tell him I’ll pull over, and he instructs me to meet him in the parking lot.
When he catches up, he talks as if I’m the only person who has listened to him in years. He tells me about the seven tickets the cops have given him. “When the warrants come up,” he says, “I spend three days in jail. Then I eat all I can.”
Quinn is an unemployed machinist who has been homeless for two years. His brow furrows as he talks about his inability to find a job. “If I could get hired somewhere,” he says, “I could start at the bottom and work my way up.”
He tells me “some jackass” offered him an $8 per hour job but then gave it away to Mexicans. And he’s got worse stories.
One guy drove by and shouted, “You need a bullet in the head!”
“Go ahead!” Quinn shouted back. “What have I got to lose?”
Another said, “You need your ass kicked. Get a job!”
Quinn asked, “Know where I can get one?”
The grief he endures seems to be worth the trouble.When the weather is good, he makes up to sixty dollars a day. He then rents a room, showers, and washes his clothes. But even this has its drawbacks— a warm, clean bed is of little comfort when he knows that in just a few hours he’ll be back out on the street.
Doesn’t he have anyone to help him? His eyes redden and gloss over when I ask the question. “After my mom died,” he says, “my dad said, ‘I don’t care if you live or die. If I see you around here again, I’ll call the cops.’”
“He didn’t think I was his son.My brother wasn’t his, and he didn’t think I was either.”
Now I’m about to cry— even more so when he talks about his mom, who died from throat cancer. “She was my best friend,” he says, sadly. And I can believe it. Quinn is a gentle, kindhearted soul.
On most nights he can’t afford a room, so he sleeps under the I-15 bridge “on the Caltrans side,” away from other transients and where he can keep his space clean. He grins when he thinks about helping cops catch some taggers who were spray painting the new wall near the bike path, just a few nights ago.
“I prevented them from messing it up,” he says proudly. I agree when he says Escondido is a “beautiful little city.”
When I next see Quinn, he’s stomping his feet and shaking rain out of his hair. I remember he said he doesn’t make much during bad weather, so I hurry home to put together a makeshift dinner for him. It’s only peanut butter and jelly, an apple, and a small bag of chips, but for one night at least, he’ll know that someone cares.