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Column: Leading voice in Laguna’s homeless community is leaving for his homeland

Colin Henderson, founder of the Friendship Shelter in Laguna Beach, is moving back to England. The shelter's kitchen, he said, was always his favorite place because it brought people together.
(David Hansen)

It was 1985 and Colin Henderson was a new Episcopal priest at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Laguna Beach. His superiors gave him a project: Work with the homeless.

Little did he know it would become a lifelong occupation.

“I thought I would do this for a couple years, perhaps, and then I’d get back to my ministry,” Henderson said. “And well, then I discovered that my ministry lay with working with homeless people.

“It was all pretty chaotic in the beginning, trying to make sure the church didn’t get burned down and things didn’t get out of hand.”

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Henderson, who turns 82 in July, first helped the homeless by using St. Mary’s as a shelter, then he went on to start the Friendship Shelter in Laguna.

Now, more than 30 years later, he’s returning to his homeland to spend more time with family.

“I’m getting old, basically,” he said. “I’ve had a wonderful time here. I have three children and six grandchildren back in the U.K., and I have no family here. I’m sure I shall find new things to do back there. I don’t know what they are yet, but I intend to make the best of the years that I have.”

Henderson’s impact in Laguna and Orange County will be felt far and wide. In addition to his work at the Friendship Shelter and St. Mary’s, Henderson works at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Irvine, where he will be retiring.

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To honor his many contributions, Friendship Shelter employees are having a public farewell party May 3 at [seven-degrees] in Laguna.

“I don’t talk to anyone associated with Friendship Shelter who wasn’t inspired … by Colin,” said Dawn Price, the shelter’s executive director. “It’s more than the work he did and the organizing he did. It’s his ability to listen to differing perspectives, gain people’s trust and then ultimately, it’s his love for the people we serve.”

Price said Henderson would never admit to doing anything special himself – certainly not enough to warrant a big party. Spry and humble, he carries his beliefs quietly, disarming those around him with sincerity and kindness.

“It comes through in just about everything he does, whether it’s a board discussion or a fundraiser he hosts, whatever it is. That just shines through,” Price said.

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It’s clear Henderson has been a tireless advocate who has forever changed the way Laguna treats its homeless.

In the beginning, however, it wasn’t always easy. Of course it’s never easy getting someone off the street, but the idea of a temporary housing location for the homeless did not meet universal support.

In fact, it was a divisive public meeting in the 1980s that helped kick-start the eventual Friendship Shelter.

“There was a community meeting where a lot of rather intolerant things were said about homeless people, and the result of that was that people who saw things differently came together and said, ‘What can we do to help?’ ” Henderson said.

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Over time, and with the support from the City Council, the site at 1335 S. Coast Hwy., was secured.

“Once we got set up and running, and people could see we were running a structured program, and we were talking about people getting back on their feet again, a lot of people began to see us in a different light,” he said. “And it takes a lot of time to establish that kind of reputation.”

For Henderson, the success of the Friendship Shelter comes one story at a time – one person who manages to change. But it’s never guaranteed, and success can end quickly.

“There is a steady trickle of people who succeed, and it’s always disheartening when someone relapses,” he said. “I can think of one person who was a heroin addict and had spent more of his life inside jail than he’d spent outside of it.”

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But he managed to stay clean and was an inspiration to Henderson.

“I can think of another person who was doing very well, seemingly, then came off the wagon,” he said.

The man became consistently inebriated and disruptive, so the staff had to ask him to leave.

“And probably a week later he died in a fire in an RV where he was staying,” Henderson said.

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Stories like this affect the staff greatly, Henderson said. The second-guessing and guilt are common. It’s human nature to wonder what could have been done differently.

Usually, the factors for success are a combination of personal responsibility and community involvement.

“To get to that place, time and again, one finds that it’s not just what we as staff do, but what the rest of us do. Success very often is about establishing a community of supportive people,” he said.

“The big experts on homelessness, of course, are the homeless themselves. Very often the short critique from a resident is far more effective than the bland words from on high from the staff.”

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Now, Henderson hopes Laguna Beach comes together again to support a new permanent supportive housing location.

“I think probably my biggest disappointment is that we don’t have permanent supportive housing in Laguna, which we need to do,” he said. “As expensive and difficult as it will be to do in Laguna, we need to give it our best shot. There are a lot of very creative people here; I’m sure there is a way to do it.”

In the end, Henderson knows the work will never be finished. There will always be challenges involving the homeless.

“I’m not going to say we can solve the problem of homelessness because no one city can do that. But I think we can at least get away from the feeling of being overwhelmed by this amorphous group of people who are seen as a problem by tourists, businesses and every part of city life when you get down to it.

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“Remember, homelessness is a community problem, and we could work most effectively if we work together at it,” Henderson said.

The farewell party is from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. May 3 at [seven-degrees], 891 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach. For more information visit friendshipshelter.org.

DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at hansen.dave@gmail.com.


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