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Beggars story: Hes homeless, hot, hungry & hunting for job
Homeless individuals hang out mid-day Wednesday at Mantecas Library Park under the gazebo. - photo by HIME ROMERO

Editor’s note: Manteca City Council wants a crackdown on aggressive panhandling. The following is a story of one man who begs on Manteca’s streets but considers himself a sign flyer.

John Allen sat beneath the shade of a small cardboard sign along Daniels Street, near the driveway that separates Kohl’s and Costco.

In this busy shopping center, where cars and trucks jam the Stadium Center’s last entrance, John Allen is a lonely, invisible soul.

He has only a few dollars to his name, a warm bottle of water and hot dog in his back pack, and a tormentor in Mother Nature.

It’s unbearably hot.

Temperatures reached 101 degrees by 4 o’clock on Friday afternoon, but the heat and the sun can feel downright suffocating and criminal when you’re desperate for water.

Desperate for shade.

Desperate for food.

Desperate for a bath.

Desperate for a job.

John Allen, a 55-year-old traveler from Illinois who asked to be identified by an alias, is all of those things and more.

He provides an interesting glimpse into the life of a transient soul, one rife with competition, territorial squabbles and an unshakable stigma.

• • •

John Allen wore tattered blue jeans and a brown shirt while he worked the corner, waving to each car that passed and thanking the few charitable souls.

“God bless you,” he told one lady after she handed him a cold bottle of water.

He smiled when another extended him a hot dog with ketchup and mustard. “Well, there’s dinner,” John Allen said with a celebratory tone as he carefully placed the plate into his pack.

Tufts of matted hair – clumped together by a dirt and sweat paste – spring from a black cap like weeds. Many of his teeth are rotted to the root and his eyes are tired and red.

He hasn’t showered in a week or so, because the campground that he and his wife call home doesn’t have running water.

Still, he puts on his best face as he flies his sign.

“I’ve been out of work for four years,” he said. “I’ve put in about 4,000 applications from Illinois to every town out here. No one has called me back.”

John Allen is a gentle man, softened by the twists and turns of his life. He has an inviting smile that peeks out from behind a handlebar mustache, and he offers a gnarled, weather-worn hand to strangers.

Problem is, many don’t offer one back.

John Allen is homeless, hungry and hot. He and his wife live in a tent at a campground near the Modesto Reservoir.

He drives a station wagon to this outpost almost every day, hoping passersby will offer him a meal, some money or better yet, a job.

He doesn’t have much – a car, two dogs, a tent and a cardboard sign. But John Allen clings to hope, even as this living hell he’s been stranded in threatens to swallow him up.


John Allen has a job waiting for him back in Illinois, he says, at his wife’s brother’s company in Kewanee. He’s been told he’ll build trailers for big-rigs, which sounds as plush and perfect as a corner-office view right about now.

There’s a catch: They don’t yet have the money to get home. It’s a familiar plot twist among the transient and homeless. There’s always something or someone standing in the way of their better days.

Only John Allen has no trouble owning his struggles. He and his wife don’t blame anyone for their current plight. Not the cops. Not local, regional or national government. Not a broken relationship or business venture.

In fact, he thanked the Manteca Police Department for their patience and understanding.

“They tell me not to be aggressive,” said John Allen, who considers himself a “sign flyer” not a panhandler. “Most don’t bother you. If they want you to leave they’ll give you a hand signal as they drive on by. Manteca PD are pretty good. They could be a lot worse.”

His story is framed by hard luck – plain and simple – and that’s his burden to bear. Their car broke down. Their lives stalled out 2,000 miles from home. And they’ve struggled to find a job to make the money that will eventually put their lives back on track.

Until then, he flies his sign.

(His wife recently received a part-time job at a fast food restaurant and the two are awaiting her first paycheck.)

“People tend to give more in colder weather,” he said. “Sometimes, you’ll be out here on days like this and get maybe $5. Sometimes, though, you’ll get lucky and get a big hit.”

A big hit?

“One time I got lucky,” he continued. “It was close to Mother’s Day. Someone gave me $50. Now that’s a big hit. It don’t happen often; that’s once in a lifetime really.”

John Allen and his wife came to California as travelers, bound for Modesto to visit his wife’s son and his six children. With what little money they had saved up, he and his wife rumbled west in their 1984 Dodge van. They made it to Modesto and eventually Los Angeles, but the road home would be blocked by misfortune and hard luck.

“I invested a lot into that van,” John Allen said. “Maybe a couple of thousand dollars – buying it and fixing it up. Got it down here and the damn motor blew up.”

He traded the van in for $200, and with their final $800 bought the station wagon. That was two months ago.

Since then, they’ve struggled to build back up their savings.

• • •

John Allen estimates he makes between $5 to $10 per day at the Stadium Center intersection. When he first arrived in town, that location netted him $30 to $40 per day.

On Friday, after three hours of roasting in the sun, John Allen had $3 in his pocket.

That corner is his, though.

There have been other “fliers” and panhandlers who have tried to bully John Allen off that corner, but he says he has endeared himself to the Stadium Center’s businesses.

He says he routinely picks up the trash that collects near the entrance/exit and wards off any panhandlers, the aggressive type that would, for example, follow a shopper to his or her car.

“I’m not a panhandler. Panhandlers are aggressive and scary. They follow you and approach you. There is nothing illegal about flying signs. I’m not out there saying, ‘Hey, let me have some money.’

“I’ll only approach you if you want me to. … I only give what God gave me – a wave. I wave at everybody that drives by, even the ones that don’t stop.”