It took Vince Jenkins 53 years to finally figure it out: Life is better without drugs, crime and homelessness.
With the help of the Laguna Beach Friendship Shelter program, Jenkins is graduating next week to the Henderson House in San Clemente.
But the road to recovery for this former methamphetamine addict has not been easy. He has burned too many bridges to count, starting with his family. His drug habit finally got him busted in a notorious park in Anaheim.
"The best thing that happened to me is that I got arrested in 2010 for having speed in my pocket," he said. "It was hard. Ultimately, it got me back on the right trail; it got me out of drugs."
Instead of a jail cell, Jenkins appreciates the shelter bed at 1335 S. Coast Hwy., next to Avila's El Ranchito, The Rooftop and other temptations. From his bedroom window, he can see the Coast Liquor Store next door. It's a constant reminder of a life he doesn't want to live anymore.
"I've been clean and sober now for 29 months and 24 days," Jenkins said. "But you're in the eye of the storm right here for sure. I hear people stagger by, obviously drunk — 1, 2, 3 in the morning, all the time. And I'm thinking, well, that used to be me out there, being stupid."
Jenkins started using early, attributing his mistakes to a life lost on drugs. He grew up in Fullerton during a time when drugs were more tolerated.
"I've been doing some kind of drugs since my early 20s — started with pot, drinking a little bit, then cocaine, then after that I went to speed and stuff like that," he said. "Speed was more important than anything else — more than family, more than a job, more than having a place to live."
Throughout most of his adult life, Jenkins managed to maintain, keeping odd jobs and paying rent. He worked at UPS, on fishing boats and with a phone company. But on Christmas Eve in 2008, things started going seriously downhill. He got evicted from his apartment and had been selling drugs in order to get his own drugs for free.
"It seemed like a good idea at the time, but it wasn't," Jenkins said.
He spent the next couple of years on the street, living between Woodcrest Park in Fullerton and La Palma Park in Anaheim. They are only a mile and a half apart.
"If I hadn't got caught, I'd probably still be in that park doing the same thing, you know, living day to day," he said. "Maybe once every couple weeks get a hotel room or something, thinking that was great. But it's really not much of a life. I had no hope at all."
After his arrest (he spent about 45 days in jail), he was on probation but remained homeless. He tried to get into the Salvation Army in Anaheim, but he did not want to give up his bicycle, a requirement for entry.
He rode off and disappeared to the park for six months. Eventually, he was arrested again for violating probation.
Once released, he agreed to stay at the Salvation Army and turned in his bike.
"This time I went in there, figured I got to do it. That's what they want me to do. And I stayed there a year."
But it was not particularly helpful, he said.
"When you're in the Salvation Army, it's more like you're working for them. They call it 'work therapy' but you're in a hot warehouse for like eight or nine hours a day, and when you get done with that, you get a crappy meal.
"You have to go to all kinds of classes. I was nothing but tired. It keeps you straight and narrow because you're getting tested all the time. It's good for that part; it kept me sober."
But when he left the Salvation Army, he was still homeless, so he went back to the only place he knew.
"I still had no place to go, so when my year ended I was right back on the street pulling my little suitcase. So I went right back to the park in Fullerton. I was not happy about it. Probation was not happy about it either. But I had nowhere else to go, didn't know what to do."
This time, lying awake at night in the park, he kept remembering what someone at the Salvation Army had told him — that there was this place in Laguna called the Friendship Shelter. But it was hard to get in. You had to call every Wednesday at 10:30 a.m. for a spot on the waiting list. Then you had to keep calling after that.
And so he did.
"I just kept calling. You have to call every day, call every day, and they finally said, 'OK, come on in.'
"And I said, 'All right!' I was in Anaheim, so it took me like four hours to get here by bus, with my little suitcase, and I was totally amazed — just a fantastic place."
The process to get in at the Friendship Shelter is somewhat difficult for a reason. You have to prove you want it.
"We open the waiting list on Wednesday at 10:30, and that phone rings on the dot at 10:31," said Dawn Price, executive director.
Price said Jenkins' story is unique because he waited so long for help.
"It's so hard to change at that age," she said. "Imagine your worst problem; then imagine your worst problem with no support."
Next year is the Friendship Shelter's 25th anniversary, and it has housed more than 6,000 people. More than 60% achieve steady income, housing and sobriety. At the Henderson House, its second-stage sister location, the success rate is 94%.
The reasons that people succeed in these programs often have to do with the little things, fairly minor challenges that most people can handle — but not those who are already burdened with personal issues.
In Jenkins' case, he finally landed a job through the Local Union 831, Tradeshow and Sign Crafts. For the past week he has been building booths at the Los Angeles Auto Show. The problem: How was he going to get to L.A. without a car?
"The Friendship Shelter stepped up to the plate and allowed me to get a rental car," Jenkins said.
The shelter used its credit card and handled the paperwork. Jenkins has to pay for the car, but there would have been no way for him to rent it on his own.
"Those little things that fall between the cracks can be the difference between moving forward and not," Price said. "Most here don't have the resilience. They get stymied."
Price told of another example where a woman at the shelter got a job in a retail store, but she had to stand for eight hours or more. The woman had diabetes, and the standing was taking a serious toll on her feet.
After consulting with an expert, the shelter bought the woman some effective, but fairly expensive, orthopedic shoes.
Meanwhile, Jenkins is just happy that the Friendship Shelter accepted him. Over the past few years, no one accepted him.
"It's saved my life. When I was living in the park I had zero, zero hope. I couldn't see any way of getting out of there. I couldn't get a job. Nobody was going to hire me the way I looked — dirty, smelly, that kind of thing.
"And just going into a store, I could feel people watching me because like, oh, he's going to steal something. And I can understand that, the way I looked."
Now, he wants to make amends. While he's still rooted in a day-to-day existence, he's allowing himself to think about the future.
"I have a brother in Costa Mesa who doesn't want to have anything to do with me. And my dad lives in Palm Desert. I caused a lot of wreckage, you know, taking advantage of them and stuff."
Never married with no children, he hopes someday to at least meet someone.
"I've been thinking about this a lot now. I go to church now. I never went to church before. But getting married, maybe, you know, having a wife or something. Sharing my life with somebody would be nice, making a connection.
"I'm not successful, but at least I'm starting to get my life back in order a little bit. I see people like at the Laguna Beach bus station that are just all messed up, and I look at that and I say I don't want to be like that anymore. I don't want to be that guy. I was that guy for too long."
A clean life, a job, a roof over his head, maybe a partner — Jenkins is starting his life over with things we take for granted.
He's moving forward slowly, proving that people can change.
DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at email@example.com.