top of page

Homeless Drift through Balboa Park

by Fred Dickey                                            June 24, 2012

          There is a ghost population of 8,500 people in San Diego County, and no one is quite certain who they are.

          They are the homeless. No matter whom you think they are, you’re probably right. Some are mentally ill, some drug-captive, some out of work or out of luck. Many are alcoholics. We like to think they’re victims of circumstance, but quite often the circumstance is themselves.

          Michael McGinley is on the job sitting on the steps of the Casa del Prado in Balboa Park, his current home. He’s begging for money with a cardboard sign that says he’s a homeless vet. Both things are true. While he works, he welcomes a conversation to break the tedium of watching most tourists walk by and ignore his cap that awaits their charity. The cap at the moment has only a single dollar bill with a sprinkling of silver below it.

           McGinley is 55 with a rosy glow and eyes that struggle to see through the brain fog of vodka. He is of medium size and wears castoffs from some thrift store or stores. Next to him is a small backpack that contains his blanket, some toiletries and little else. There is no room for a change of clothes. The pack also serves as a pillow, which also keeps it from being stolen.

Even amidst the stucco fairyland and Elysian beauty of this place, the weight of human frailty must be borne.

          For all his lacks—a bed to sleep in, a regular sit-down meal, a caring someone to smile at him—McGinley is cheerful and open to a stranger, even one who doesn’t immediately drop a dollar in the hat.

          He says he grew up an orphan in Pennsylvania, dropped out of school in the ninth grade, and then joined the post-Vietnam Marine Corps at age 17 in which he served four years.

          Asked why he enlisted, he says, “I wanted to kill people.” Who? “Anybody,” he says. Why? “Because my parents died and I was mad at the world.” However, he says he eventually lost his anger. “Now, I don’t want to be cruel. If you do something wrong, something wrong will happen to you.”

          By his own calculation, McGinley has gone through 60 jobs, two wives, and left three children in his wake. He has a sister and a son in the San Diego area. The other children are scattered—somewhere. The sister looks him up on holidays and gives him food and some money; the son never comes around.

          How would he react were his son to appear? “I’d go get an ice cream with him, and—“ He stops, turns his head away and quietly sobs. He wants to change the subject.

Contrary to appearances, McGinley and his peers live a rather structured life. He sleeps across the narrow road in the doorway of the Railroad Museum. He usually pulls out his cardboard-sheet mattress from where he has it stashed at about seven p.m. and finishes the last of his fifth of vodka, then goes to sleep. At about six a.m., a cop will come by and tell him to get up and move his things so he doesn’t interfere with the tourists soon to appear. However, he can sometimes stretch his time in the doorway for a couple more hours.

          “Some people live down here for 25 years,” he says, boasting of the comfort of the park. But he never goes in the museums except to use the bathroom, and the profusion of floral extravagance does nothing for him. “I don’t pay any attention to it,” he says.

          The homeless community in Balboa Park, about 150 at this time of year, police estimate, seems to be compatible and generally respectful of each other’s space, at least according to McGinley. “We each got to get through the day, so there’s not much fighting. If you stake out a place [for panhandling], no one else is gonna push you off it.

          His sidekick this day, and for the past two weeks, is an amiable young black man who also hangs out on the Casa del Prado steps. Occasionally, he’ll buy a cigarette from McGinley for a quarter. That gives McGinley a small profit and a feeling of geniality. In a few days, the two will drift apart, and new friends will be made.

          McGinley does fine here because he’s a guy. He says that women have it much rougher, including the occasional rape. However, you won’t likely see that as a police statistic because they are rarely reported.

          “If a woman gets raped down here, her friends get together and beat the s--- out of the guy. Not much the cops could do because the woman was probably drunk and wouldn’t talk about it, anyway.”

          This is his world, and he rarely looks beyond. Asked about the upcoming election, he says, “I don’t give a f---.” If he could say one thing to President Obama? “I’d tell him to go f--- himself.” When the subject of counseling or therapy comes up, he looks at me as though I’d lost my mind.

          McGinley mind is a yellow pages of survival resources. Key among them are the Salvation Army, St. Vincent De Paul, Catholic Charities, and County Medical Services. To make the connection, he says, “I got a bad toothache. The booze helps the pain, but I’m gonna have to take a day to go down to St. Vinnie’s and get it pulled.”

          Food and clothing come from various charities and soup kitchens. He flashes a food stamps card, and says, “I use this if I go to a grocery store.” The card is the nearest thing to wealth he has.

          His daily routine revolves about getting his vodka ration and two packs of cigarettes. He has to manage that on approximately $200 per month that he earns panhandling, which he considers a full-time job.

          He talks about the availability of illegal cigarettes for $2.50 per pack brought in from Mexico, but he won’t admit to buying them. “You can go to jail a long time for that.” He consumes a fifth of the cheapest vodka he can find which costs about six dollars. If the begging has a downturn, and he can’t afford it, he suffers.

          Cheap booze is the back-slapping friend McGinley has come to rely on. However, it’s also the Judas that plays hell with his liver and is planning to one day turn and kill him.

          He cheerfully admits being an alcoholic, and when asked if he would like to quit drinking, he says, “I don’t want to.

          “If I can’t have a drink by ten in the morning, I get DTs (delirium tremens). I start shaking and vomiting. It’s hell, so I gotta find a way to get a bottle.” Given his druthers, he prefers rum, but it’s more expensive. When it comes down to it, however, booze is booze.

          The answer to what went wrong in McGinley’s life is either complex or simple, depending on your view of behavioral psychology or individual responsibility. Take your pick: neither offers easy answers.

          Somewhere in San Diego there are people who might care for Michael McGinley if he would allow it. But unless lightning strikes his life, he will remain a fixture in this park, panhandling, sleeping in a doorway, and drinking to get that daily buzz. Then, one day, he won’t be here.

Fred Dickey of Cardiff is a novelist and award-winning magazine writer who believes every life is an adventure. He welcomes column ideas and other suggestions; contact him at

© Copyright 2012 The San Diego Union-Tribune, LLC. An MLIM LLC Company. All rights reserved.

bottom of page