RICHMOND -- Yvonne Nair recalls the day she was inspired to create a program focused on easing homeless people back into the workforce. She was walking from an El Cerrito storefront when she locked eyes with a homeless man just before he took a long swill from a bottle and slumped over on a bench.

"He had such sadness in his eyes," Nair said. "I thought about him all night, and I decided I knew what I had to do."

Soon after, Nair plucked about $25,000 from her own 401(k) account to help found Saffron Strand, Inc. in 2008. She envisioned the Point Richmond nonprofit organization as an opportunity to fill a gap she felt has long been lacking in homeless service organizations -- training and mental health support aimed at returning the homeless to the workforce. Her motivation was inspired not just by her empathy for the destitute but her own experience as a homeless teen in her native Malaysia.

Saffron Strand CEO Yvonne Nair is photographed at the nonprofit’s office in Richmond, Calif., on Wednesday, June 11, 2014.
Saffron Strand CEO Yvonne Nair is photographed at the nonprofit's office in Richmond, Calif., on Wednesday, June 11, 2014. (Kristopher Skinner/Bay Area News Group)

"The homeless often want to go back to work, but they have multiple barriers that get more insurmountable over time," Nair said. "These are often traumatized people, and food and clothing and a resume aren't enough to help them get back on their feet."

About six years later, Nair, 58, uses her business and psychology training and unfailing patience to help put homeless people back to work and give them the tools and confidence to pick themselves off the pavement.

"Yvonne and her program have made me feel comfortable and willing to trust, which is not easy," said John Garth, a 76-year-old military veteran who has been homeless off and on for decades and joined Saffron Strand last year. "I feel like I'm part of something here instead of just being talked at."

The name, Saffron Strand, came from Nair's own sense of perspective, which is often animated by metaphor and a poetic turn of mind.

"I believe there's valuable human potential inside every person, like the precious strand of saffron in the crocus flower," Nair said. "The homeless and other very poor, vulnerable people have within them saffron-like qualities that are not immediately obvious."

More than 200 people have been registered in Saffron Strand's program. According to Nair, about half have gotten jobs and kept them for at least two years.

Saffron Strand members gain work experience volunteering to plan and execute the nonprofit's events, including its annual conference on homelessness, which draws experts from around the country. The nonprofit's members gain skills in budgeting, management, public speaking and marketing.

But it's the sense of equality, respect and other "soft skills" that are at least as valuable, Nair said.

"Being able to trust others and to be part of a positive environment are crucial for people who have suffered so much pain and trauma in their lives, as most homeless people have," she said.

Nair knows the trauma of homelessness firsthand.

Saffron Strand CEO Yvonne Nair, right, meets with board member Shamar Shankir, right, and program coordinator Chysandra Nair as they plan for the
Saffron Strand CEO Yvonne Nair, right, meets with board member Shamar Shankir, right, and program coordinator Chysandra Nair as they plan for the group's upcoming conference in Richmond, Calif., on Wednesday, June 11, 2014. (Kristopher Skinner/Bay Area News Group)

Nair said she was restless and unhappy as a teen growing up in Malaysia. She ran away from home and wound up living on the streets at age 17. The tropical land became a harsh world of discomfort and shiftlessness, where she would sleep on park benches or on the verandas of residents who felt sorry for her. She found work at a small shop, which helped her get back on her feet before she came to America in her early 20s.

In the United States, Nair got her life on track, raising two children and gaining experience in the mental health field, culminating in an executive director position leading a Concord-based job-training program for the mentally ill.

But the desire to use a new approach to help the homeless gnawed at Nair and bloomed when she locked eyes with the homeless man in El Cerrito. Soon after, she met with Mayor Gayle McLaughlin and her field representatives, who encouraged her to start her program in Richmond.

The homeless men, women and children who are part of the program are called "members" and work as volunteers as well, helping organize events, conduct outreach to other homeless people and do work around the offices.

The dynamic was on vivid display days before Saffron Strand's annual homelessness solutions conference June 16. Standing in front of a whiteboard and flanked by a portrait of Mahatma Ghandi, Nair, in business slacks and a black sweater, led a round-table discussion with homeless members to prepare for the conference.

"The focus of the conference is you," she told the group. "You must demonstrate that you are capable and willing to work, to be an example of professionalism."

After the meeting, one of the members, Lenora Brown, worked on some prepared remarks she planned to deliver, reading over the text on her computer screen. The conference drew positive feedback from participants and featured a slew of lectures by leaders in the fields of law, social work and academia.

"This program has helped me learn new computer skills," said Brown, a 58-year-old who became homeless when she lost her job at a bank four years ago. "But it's really my confidence and hope that have increased the most, and I have to thank Yvonne for that."

Contact Robert Rogers at 510-262-2726. Follow him at Twitter.com/sfbaynewsrogers.

NAME: Yvonne Nair
AGE: 58
HOMETOWN: Richmond
CLAIM TO FAME: CEO, Saffron Strand, Inc.
QUOTE: "When we treat these vulnerable human beings with dignity, respect, and trust, they begin to reveal their saffron-like qualities. In this way, they begin to realize their human potential. Then we can help them discover ways they can apply their unique personal qualities in many productive, positive ways, including work they actually like to do."
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