National experts and locals come together to reduce homelessness

On Monday, people gathered at Richmond Memorial Auditorium to learn and share new perspectives about homelessness. (Photo by Tyler Orsburn)

On Monday, people gathered at Richmond Memorial Auditorium to learn and share new perspectives about homelessness. (Photo by Tyler Orsburn)

On Monday and Tuesday Saffron Strand, a Point Richmond non-profit focused on helping the homeless find meaningful employment and achieve economic independence, hosted its third annual conference to generate ideas about how to end homelessness. Topics included health care, housing, transitional employment and the hiring of ex-offenders.

The event took place at the Richmond Memorial Auditorium and was called “Defragmenting the Homeless Continuum: Linking Pathways to Self-Sufficiency.” One of its goals was to identify gaps, incentives and disincentives in existing programs for the homeless. Around 50 people sat at circular tables taking notes on talks given by local, state and national experts.

Monday’s keynote speaker Gabriela Lemus, a senior U.S. Department of Labor official, said last September’s Census report showed that one in six Americans live in poverty. Family homelessness in particular has skyrocketed, increasing 20 percent from 2007 to 2010. “The chief cause of homelessness is the lack of affordable housing based on adequate employment,” she said.

Stephen Baiter, executive director of the Contra Costa County Workforce Development Board, said official unemployment numbers released last Friday range from as low as 2.2 percent in some pockets of the county up to 14.6 percent in the city of Richmond. “Political boundaries really don’t matter when you’re dealing with issues like homelessness,” he said. “Homelessness goes beyond the boundaries of one city, of one’s community, but permeates our region in ways that we’re still learning.”

Cpt. Henry Lopez, Jr., explains some health statistics provided by the Health Resources and Services Administration. (Photo by Tyler Orsburn)

Cpt. Henry Lopez, Jr., an official with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said for a person to be successful it takes a total package of community involvement, social services and counseling. “You can have someone go to work and be blessed like that,” he said to the crowd, “and you can have housing, but if you don’t have health care, you can’t succeed.”

For guest speaker and Saffron Strand volunteer Phillip Woods, homelessness is no joke. The 24-year-old from Texas said after he lost his job at Jiffy Lube he had to spend the night on a park bench in Antioch. Woods said being homeless scared him and made him fear for his life. “Coming out of homelessness for me was very difficult, but I did it,” he said.

Yvonne Nair, Saffron Strand’s CEO, knows about being scared. She herself was homeless in Malaysia before moving to the United States. She credits her success to those who helped her along the way. “I know not to give up on people,” she said. “No one gave up on me. We must use compassion to help the homeless find a path to meaningful employment.”

Saffron Strand has about 150 members and has put about 60 people back to work by offering technical and social skills training combined with personal wellness and self care needs programs. It takes about five months before participants are ready to work, Nair said.

Saffron Strand volunteer Clayton Gill said caring for the homeless is expensive for taxpayers. There are law enforcement issues, hospitalization issues, loitering issues—all that is a financial strain on the government, he said. “The longer the homeless are out of work, the greater their skills erosion,” Gill said. “And it’s not just the technical skills, but also the social skills that go along with working.  Yvonne is very good at that—she’ll coach them on what’s right and what’s wrong.”

With guidance from Nair and Saffron Strand, Woods now works at Aerial Beacon, an aerial advertising and marketing services company in the Bay Area, and studies information technology at the University of Phoenix in Concord. On Monday at the conference, he stood before the crowd in his dry-cleaned shirt and told the audience that he planned to become an Oakland police officer one day. “I stand before you to tell you homelessness doesn’t have to be a problem in this community,” Woods said. “One by one, each and everyone of us can get together and end homelessness.”

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