On Saturday night a handful of Richmond and Bay Area residents gathered near the steps of the Civic Center Plaza for an overnight vigil to show concern about homelessness, what many in the group call a social justice and human right’s issue. Guest speakers gave inspirational speeches, and before it got too dark everyone shared a light meal and conversations of hope. When the cold wind and nightfall overtook them, 13 people sat in a circle, lit a candle and shared roofless stories over an open mic.
The event was organized by Saffron Strand, a Point Richmond non-profit focused on helping the homeless find meaningful employment and achieve economic independence. Its founder and CEO, Yvonne Nair, said there are nearly 20,000 people living without a home in Contra Costa County, and that 1,200 of them reside in Richmond. “We hope this event brings awareness,” Nair said, “and to help people volunteer—to do whatever it takes to help the other person back on their feet.”
Nair said Saffron Strand has about 150 homeless members and that they’ve put around 60 people back to work.
Mayor Gayle McLaughlin addressed the small crowd bundled in jackets and blankets to champion the work done by the non-profit. She said there was no value in turning away from the plight of homelessness because every struggle that goes ignored diminishes the community.
McLaughlin said an imbalance of wealth distribution has not helped people off the street. Taking inspiration from British novelist John Berger, she said today’s poverty was imposed by the rich. “It’s not like there isn’t enough [money] to go around in this world,” the mayor said. “We know that big corporations like Chevron make billions in profits, and yet we have one of the highest homeless rates in the Bay Area right here in Richmond. That’s really an obscene fact that we have such disparity in our community.”
For Paul Boden, homelessness is personal. The Western Regional Advocacy Project organizing director was homeless in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District for six years, he said. He said today’s homeless crisis began in the early 1980′s when then-President Ronald Reagan’s trickle down economy didn’t make homeless people middle class again. “It’s gotten so bad, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has redefined what family homelessness means so that numbers go down,” Boden said. “Mayors [like McLaughlin] could have a dramatic impact on change because every mayor in the country is dealing with it. Mayors can work together to fight government to restore HUD, social security, and health care as a human right.”
Kenneth Garner was a homeowner and commercial fisherman near Seattle for 32 years. The Washington native said he got hung up on drugs because skippers would buy them to help them stay up longer to work. Eventually Garner lost his wife and home.
Garner bunked on San Francisco’s Pier 45 for over six years. But with the help of GLIDE, a San Francisco non-profit that helps move people from extremities, he’s been housed for 27 months. “I do believe housing is health care because it makes me feel that I’m special again,” he said. “I’ve re-established myself, gotten back with my son and grandkids, and have a little money in my pocket. I’m thankful to have a bathroom again instead of sleeping in alley ways.”
Phil Woods feels the same way. The 24-year-old Texas native arrived to Antioch in 2011 and found a job at Jiffy Lube. But when he got laid off he had to bounce around between several homeless shelters. He is now on his feet and studying information technology at the University of Phoenix in Concord. “Homeless people are really suffering,” Woods said. “I’m here to honor the homeless that have lost their lives and to come up with better solutions. Homelessness is something we can end one person at a time, and today is the day to start a new beginning.”