The controversy over the proposed homeless shelter in Laguna Canyon carries me back to a similar situation more than 25 years ago when Friendship Shelter first got started. We had been running a temporary shelter at St. Mary’s, organized by Rev. Colin Henderson and staffed by a handful of volunteers, but finally the church said we had to go, and we began looking for a permanent facility. We found a potential site in the canyon, in the middle of a light industrial area, held a public meeting, and people came out of the woodwork to object: a homeless shelter will destroy the Canyon! Traffic! Crime!! Chaos! We kept looking.
Eventually, of course, we found the present location, on Coast Highway between Cress and Mountain. When we first considered the site, we went door to door trying to drum up support from neighbors. Their consensus? Look, they said, we’ve got the Little Shrimp on one corner and the Boom Boom Room on the other, and a stream of people walking the alley between them at night. How could a homeless shelter make it worse? We had found our home.
The first night the Shelter opened, we had about a dozen residents, and we sat around nervously eating our first communal meal. Suddenly the phone rang, and we all looked at each other and then at the phone. Who could be calling us? Who knows we’re here? Finally an older woman picked it up, and listened to the message from the other end. A solicitor from the L. A. Times, it turned out, was trying to sign us up for home delivery. We couldn’t hear the pitch, but only our resident’s dismissive response before she hung up, “Girl, this is a homeless shelter!”
We stared at each other in disbelief, and then broke into laughter. We now knew who we were. We had our identity. We were a homeless shelter, and we were proud of it.
The rest is history, a history that embraces thousands of people who have been helped off the streets by Friendship Shelter to a productive life in the community, and an organization that has been a model neighbor in Laguna Beach. Now Friendship Shelter is trying to bring their successful program out to the Canyon, to help more people into housing, and into a stable life.
It won’t be easy. It won’t be smooth sailing, but I pray the phone rings in the new shelter one night soon.
David Peck was the first night supervisor at Friendship Shelter and later chairman of its board.