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Saffron Strand’s 2013 Homeless Workforce Conference hosted the annual Jesse Curtis Awards for Reducing Homeless on June 18 in Richmond. The Awards are co-sponsored by the Office of the Mayor of the City of Richmond and Mayor Gayle McLaughlin presented the Awards.

Jesse Curtis lived into her 90s and died in Richmond, homeless and alone. Despite her own homelessness, she helped Richmond’s homeless through her extraordinary kindness in action. She became a bridge to a better life for many who worked their way out of homelessness. Her memory lives on in the many hearts she touched. The annual Jesse Curtis Awards for Reducing Homelessness are a token of remembrance of this humble but remarkable member of our community.

Homeless Citizen Achievement Award, honoring a homeless Bay Area citizen who has made extraordinary progress, against all odds, in improving his or her job skills, employability, and economic independence — Christina Blessent.

Christina joined Saffron Strand’s intentional community to prepare herself to get back into the workforce. For the past year, she has come from Oakland to the Saffron Strand Center in Point Richmond, where she has worked on a voluntary, unpaid basis to learn on the job to get the job skills she needs.

Christina also has been a valued volunteer in other organizations, including the Pacific Center in Berkeley where she was a Youth LGBTQ Program Co-Facilitator. She also has volunteered as a conversation partner for those who speak English as a second language at the YWCS English in Action Program in Berkeley and the Diablo Valley College International Education Center in Pleasant Hill.

When Christina started at Saffron Strand, everyone could tell right away that she was creative, energetic, and helpful. She began as a motivational specialist/generalist working with Saffron Strand’s homeless members. She was patient with other members – teaching them how to put their thoughts into words on their resumes, presentations, and emails. She helped members research the services they needed and helped them navigate new computers with updated software in the Saffron Strand office.

Although Christina still readily helps members, now she fills a demanding position as the Executive Assistant to Saffron Strand’s CEO.

Christina loves to write – short stories, poetry, and well-crafted emails. She is very willing to share her writing skills with those who need to improve their own written work. Effective writing is a great help to Saffron Strand members as they strive to re-enter the workforce. Christina’s own stories often have surprise endings. True to her own writing, Christina regularly surprises everyone at Saffron Strand with her growing skills. She’s going to be a wonderful, positive surprise to her future employer, too!

• Homelessness Program Achievement Award, honoring a government, non-profit, or faith-based program’s extraordinary performance over the past year in helping to reduce homelessness in the Bay Area — Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency or “BOSS”.

Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency or “BOSS,” based in Berkeley, has a 42-year record of providing shelter, housing, and life-changing support services to homeless people throughout the East Bay. Each year, BOSS serves over 1,500 people, including one-parent and two-parent families with children of all ages, single adults, and couples.

BOSS serves all ages, races, ethnicities, education levels, and life experiences. BOSS works with people who face serious barriers to health and housing, including those with mental illness, developmental disabilities, illiteracy, substance abuse, HIV-AIDS, victimization through domestic violence, and other challenges. BOSS receives referrals from, or works in partnership with, city and county health, mental health, and public health agencies, as well as courts, jails, police, faith-based groups, and other community-based service providers. Civic clubs, housing developers, and local neighborhoods contribute to BOSS’s work as donors and volunteers.

The work of BOSS has special importance in view of our 2013 Conference “Developing the Homeless Workforce.” The organization’s Economic Development Solutions for Low-Skilled Job Seekers offers a range of programs to help the homeless – including youths and people exiting the criminal justice system – to get back to work in the East Bay economy. “Income,” a BOSS board member says, “is another essential ingredient for reducing homelessness—BOSS helps people who are able to work to get the education and training they need, and to seek jobs.”

BOSS Executive Director Donald Frazier accepted the Homelessness Program Achievement Award on behalf of the organization.

• “Voice of the Homeless” Media Award, honoring the leadership of a Bay Area corporate or individual print, broadcast, or web-based media source in reporting on homelessness issues most accurately and fairly over the past year — Tyler Orsburn.

Tyler’s reporting in Richmond Confidential called attention to the four-bedroom house Richmond resident Rhonda Harris had converted to living quarters and resource center for up to six homeless military veterans.

However, Tyler’s “homeless creds” go back more than 3 years in reporting a variety of stories about homelessness during study for his Master of Journalism degree at UC Berkeley, including his coverage of Saffron Strand’s 2012 Conference and last year’s “Vigil for the Homeless” event in Richmond.

Richmond Confidential is an online news service produced by the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley for, and about, the people of Richmond and often includes articles about the homeless and homelessness.

Born and raised in Kentucky, Tyler received his BS in Biology from the University of Kentucky and studied photojournalism at Western Kentucky University. He served as a Peace Corp Volunteer in Costa Rica and trained for photography during his service in the U.S. Navy from which he was honorably discharged.

Tyler currently is a fellow in the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism specializing in Media Production. He also is a mentor and video instructor for the Media Enterprise Alliance in Oakland where he provides students the opportunity to learn media arts while earning high school credit. MEA gives students the skills and expertise they need for careers in journalism, TV and film production, and other media arts. Videos produced air on KDOL-TV, Channel 27, in Oakland.

• Homelessness Advocacy in Action Award, honoring a member of the Bay Area community who has been highly effective in advocating and achieving positive results with responsible, actionable, and sustainable solutions for homelessness — Marilyn Langlois.

With all her heart and soul, Marilyn Langlois is a community activist who advocates and achieves positive results for Richmond’s less fortunate and most vulnerable. As demonstrated in her candidacy last year for the Richmond City Council, Marilyn is courageous and resourceful in campaigning for local economic development, job creation, and workplace democracy that would benefit the homeless and those at risk of homelessness.

One of the co-founders of the Richmond Progressive Alliance, Marilyn has built close ties with countless volunteer leaders and empowered them to help improve the Richmond community. Her positive, productive relationships in the community have helped promote new, employment-focused solutions to homelessness and encouraged many to bring their issues and concerns forward.

Marilyn’s work with Richmond’s Boards and Commissions and the Richmond Neighborhood Coordinating Council have brought multiple, diverse stakeholders together to address problems in the City’s poorest, most crime-ridden neighborhoods where many of the homeless live.

As a Community Advocate on the staff of Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, Marilyn was an early and ardent supporter of Saffron Strand. Her help made a huge, positive difference in achieving the first 3 Saffron Strand Conferences.

• Outstanding Volunteer Award, honoring a member of the Bay Area community whose selfless, voluntary work has benefited the homeless and provided a great example to us all — Byron Baptiste.

Byron Baptiste is the Communications Manager for the Richmond Police Department. Byron is responsible for Richmond’s police dispatchers, who are continuously on the frontlines in handling emergencies involving the homeless. Byron’s team must respond to countless unfolding human tragedies and remain responsive, effective, and professional throughout.

Despite this heavy burden, Byron has put in hour upon hour as a volunteer in non-profit community service, especially in service to the homeless through Saffron Strand. He gives his personal time freely and cheerfully to implement Saffron Strand’s most challenging projects.

Byron has worked for the City of Richmond since he was 19 years old. He first applied for two positions – for garbage collector and for a position in the police department. Since the police department called him back first, he accepted the position and has been working in the Communications Department for more than 30 years.

Byron’s mother also worked for the City of Richmond in the Housing Authority. Through his mom’s work, Byron got to see firsthand how many of Richmond’s citizens lived. What he saw made him want to help people lead better lives.

Byron has volunteered for the “heavy lifting” at Saffron Strand – unloading trucks, moving heavy furniture, setting up for and cleaning up after the Annual Conference – the sort of work that few step out front to do with no compensation except heartfelt thanks.

Byron also is a mentor for some of Saffron Strand’s homeless members. They look up to him as a person from their community who has worked in the community for a long time, provided for his own family and then helped many others in the community. Byron provides a real-life example. He is someone they know they can ask about career paths and get straight answers.

• Chair’s Award, presented by the Chair of the Saffron Strand Board of Directors, honoring a dedicated and compassionate member of the community who has worked tirelessly and quietly behind the scenes to reduce homelessness — Joe Escobedo.

Joe Escobedo is an entrepreneur and authority on personal image consulting for a cross-generational audience, with achievements throughout the Bay Area as a makeup artist and licensed cosmetologist. Joe has a diverse and devoted clientele at a busy nursing home salon franchise he owns and as a master hair stylist in an upscale Berkeley spa. Joe also delivers self-assurance and positive self-image on location, from weddings to hospital rooms, marketing through his website, www.theglambox.me. Local media have featured Joe for his work benefiting the indigent elderly.

However, Joe also is a founding Director of Saffron Strand. He worked as a volunteer hair stylist at Saffron Strand’s debut by providing personal care and wellness services to dozens of homeless “customers” at Project Homeless Connect 4 in Richmond in 2009. He demonstrated his extraordinary compassion through his professional skills which improved homeless people’s self-image as well as the  presentation of themselves in public. Joe helped them “see the saffron” in themselves and show it to others, including prospective employers.

Joe inspires us all with his quiet, unassuming, ongoing efforts to support Saffron Strand and enable more of its members to re-enter the workforce.

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