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.