RICHMOND -- In the city's memorial auditorium, a two-day conference put on by a new homeless advocacy organization drew dozens of speakers and hundreds of attendees for a series of lectures and workshops aimed at reducing homelessness through job training and other emerging techniques to "Develop the Homeless Workforce," the event's title.
A few blocks away Monday, one of the Bay Area's oldest homeless support organizations held a small ceremony to celebrate more than $31,000 in new technology, the result of being one of five nationwide to win Toshiba's Helping the Helpers Technology Makeover contest.
Thanks to new initiatives and both financial and rhetorical support by city leaders, Richmond is emerging as a leader in homeless services.
"It's a great time to reach out and help because there is both a lot of need and a lot of support," said the Rev. John Anderson, president and CEO of the Bay Area Rescue Mission, minutes after celebrating the installation of computers, tablets, software and video recorders that will be used to teach homeless men and women multimedia skills and produce media highlighting his program. "The Bay Area has always been a leader (in homeless support services), and Richmond has emerged as a key part of that."
While the rescue mission, with facilities all over the East Bay and an operating budget of about $4.3 million annually -- virtually all from donations -- has established itself as a homeless service provider for decades, Saffron Strand represents the infusion of new capacity and new ideas in Richmond.
Founded in 2008 by Yvonne Nair, herself formerly homeless, the Richmond-based membership organization for homeless men and women has gained growing acclaim for its annual conference.
More than 150 people are members, and they go through a comprehensive program that includes everything from counseling and mental health treatment to training in "soft skills" such as etiquette and business communication techniques.
"There are all ranges of technical and psychological barriers that our members face, and we help them overcome to re-enter the work force," Nair said during a presentation Monday afternoon. "One size doesn't fit all, but we can be flexible enough to help everyone."
Conference topics included how to navigate the employment process despite a criminal record and incentive programs for employers to hire formerly homeless and incarcerated workers.
The fledgling annual conference is boosted by the city's decision to waive $5,000 in fees to use the city's auditorium, and Mayor Gayle McLaughlin and Councilwoman Jovanka Beckles are regularly counted among the speaker lists.
The city earlier this year also passed a "ban the box," initiative, making Richmond one of only a handful statewide to remove questions about criminal history from initial applications for public employment, with a goal toward reducing unemployment among former prisoners.
But despite the increase in services and new providers, the problem still dwarfs the resources to solve it, Anderson said. Unemployment in Richmond, as high as 19 percent after the 2008-09 economic crisis, is down to about 11 percent but remains above the state average. About one-third of Contra Costa County's homeless population is in Richmond.
According to county statistics, an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 residents are homeless at some point during the year and about 5,000 at any given time.
"As many strides have been made, the need just keeps increasing beyond our collective capacity," Anderson said. "While I am proud of the job we do, we had to turn away 3,500 people at our facility last year."
Contact Robert Rogers at 510-262-2726. Follow him at Twitter.com/roberthrogers.
Saffron Strand: saffronstrand.org or 510-778-9492
Bay Area Rescue Mission: bayarearescue.org or 510-215-4555