When Colin Henderson and his wife Elin settled permanently in Laguna Beach in 1985, St. Mary’s Episcopal Church opened its doors regularly to homeless people, who bedded down for the night on church property.
He and others in the community, “were profoundly moved by seeing all the people sleeping there,” said Henderson, an ordained Episcopal priest.
Three years later, compassion for those lacking housing led Henderson to establish Friendship Shelter in his adopted hometown. For 30 years, what has become a 32-bed residential program has provided a path to self-sufficiency for men and women whose lives have been upended, often by drug use, mental illness and disabilities. In recent years, its mission has broadened to include bundling permanent housing with supportive services as well as operating the city’s 45-bed Alternative Sleeping Location, the county’s only year-round overnight emergency shelter.
“Given support and encouragement, homeless people could reshape their lives,” Henderson said. “One could see it happening before your very eyes.”
Henderson credits the guidance of Alice Graves, Phil May and Belinda Blacketer for envisioning a non-profit that could better address the array of personal needs of those who also lacked physical shelter. “This has always been a compassionate place,” Henderson said. “I was just dragged along.”
Now, the 81-year-old founding leader of Friendship Shelter is pulling up stakes and returning to his native England to enjoy the proximity of his children and grandchildren. A community send-off for him is planned from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 3, at Seven Degrees, 891 Laguna Canyon Road.
While Henderson remains reluctant to take credit for inciting empathy within the community, others are less reticent to recognize his role taking on a social problem that one study says costs the county $121 million for health care and $23 million for criminal justice.
“We were working on behalf of the homeless, but, in truth, we were all working to fulfill Colin’s vision of a better world,” said Randy Kraft, of Dana Point, a former Friendship Shelter development officer.
Longtime resident and former City Council member Verna Rollinger said Henderson’s strength of purpose and easy smile guided Friendship Shelter clients to a better life. She recalled a Dinners Across Laguna fundraiser where Henderson described the nonprofit’s struggle to create the program and the personal successes of some early residents. “I have never known anyone who has led so many in from the cold and into the warmth of a productive life,” Rollinger said.
“His leaving will be a great loss to Laguna,” said longtime resident Bonnie Hano, who praised Henderson’s gentle demeanor for its effectiveness.
That sentiment was echoed by Council member Kelly Boyd, who cultivated an abiding respect for Henderson as they served together on a task force in 2008 that led to the establishment of the city’s homeless shelter.
“He’s a person who works with you; he doesn’t pound the table,” Boyd said. Though Henderson made it known that his goal, to establish permanent housing with support services for the town’s chronic homeless, was more ambitious than that of the task force, “he was happy we did take a step to get a roof over their heads,” Boyd said. “His fight is for Laguna and the homeless here and for them to move forward.”
Now Henderson, too, seems ready to move on. He will be a continent away from memories of his wife, who died here in 2006, and St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church of Irvine, where he has served as the assisting spiritual leader. His imprint on Laguna seems intact. The organization he’s worked to sustain appears well established as Executive Director Dawn Price pursues new means to strengthen Friendship Shelter’s mission.
“I’m going to miss this place like crazy,” Henderson said. “I’m leaving so much behind that’s important and sustaining to me.”