Last year, Phillip Woods lost his job at a car garage and found himself penniless and sleeping on park benches.
"I was cold, hungry, scared," the 24-year-old Woods told a crowd of about 60 at Richmond Memorial Auditorium. "I didn't know where to turn."
Today, after linking up with a series of Contra Costa County public and private organizations, Woods is a board member of Saffron Strand, a Richmond-based membership organization for homeless men and women in Contra Costa County.
Woods' story was among those highlighted Monday, as regional, local and national leaders met for the first day of Saffron Strand's third annual conference on homelessness, titled "Defragmenting the Homeless Continuum: Linking Pathways to Self-Sufficiency."
The conference is also scheduled for workshops and symposiums Tuesday. The two-day event includes opening plenary sessions, networking luncheons and more than 20 professionally targeted workshops.
The theme of the conference, and one championed by Saffron Strand since it was formed in 2008, was collaboration and holistic approaches to reducing homelessness that include mental health services, employment training, housing and medical care.
"It's time for us to work together to stem the rising tide of homelessness," said Yvonne Nair, CEO of Saffron Strand.
Conference participants met with national, regional and local homelessness experts and policymakers while exploring "employment-focused"
According to county officials, an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 residents are homeless at some point during the year and about 5,000 at any given time, with the numbers heavily concentrated in Richmond and other West Contra Costa County communities.
The program provides membership for free to homeless adults in return for their time and work at its center, including training intended to make them employable. Current membership numbers about 100 men and women, said Clayton Gill, a volunteer staff member for Saffron Strand.
The organization has held several other events in recent years to highlight the plight of the homeless, including an overnight vigil at Civic Center Plaza last month.
On Monday, keynote speaker Gabriela Lemus, a senior U.S. Department of Labor official, said education and training are key to addressing homelessness on the national and local level.
"We must remain committed to making job training more accessible to all," Lemus said.
Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin also delivered opening remarks Monday.
"In Richmond, we do not look away, we stand in solidarity" with the homeless, McLaughlin said.
The mayor went on to praise Saffron Strand for focusing on "creating pathways" for homeless men and women toward self-sufficient lives.
Speakers scheduled for Tuesday include experts on topics related to re-entry of paroled state prison inmates and homeless military veterans. The conference runs from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the auditorium, 403 Civic Center Plaza.
After addressing the conference, Woods said his story could be replicated by thousands of others who have found themselves down and out.
"I had nothing, I had no friends, and my communications skills were poor," Woods said. "If I can be helped, there is hope for everyone."
Contact Robert Rogers at 510-262-2726. Follow him at Twitter.com/roberhrogers.