Santa Cruz has a typical beach town vibe, from the longhaired skateboarders to the early morning fog. As we drove up to the Homeless Garden Project, the sign greeted us with colorful welcome. This stop afforded us the luxury of wandering around the brimming 3.5-acre property on our own, munching on various fruits, vegetables, and introducing ourselves to the employees. After just showing up, we were lucky to discover that everyone was very excited to talk to us about their work.
Another “one-and-only” program, The Homeless Garden Project works with people who have an unstable living environment, and/or those who have been living on the streets. Although the organization only focuses on 15 people at any given time, “It’s about quality, rather than quantity,” Chris, the farm manager, explains. Some folks stumble upon the garden project, some counselors refer clients, but mostly word-of mouth keeps the program full every year. They also have a large dedicated volunteer following, last year hosting 1,500 volunteers from the surrounding community. With so much manpower, it is no wonder the space looks so well manicured. Healthy fruit and color flowers around every turn, this is no doubt one of the more aesthetically pleasing sites we have visited.
Along with providing full-time on-farm employment, the project also offers organic gardening workshops addressing things like pest management, the benefits of Lactobacilli and ergonomics, as well as resume-building and interviewing skills during winter months. In exchange, the HGP only asks each of the participants to have three general qualifications: a need, a willingness to make positive change in their lives and others, and a desire to participate in their community. Each person takes part in the program for a full calendar year, afterwards being able to use their experience and references to build their futures. There is no tolerance for drug use within the organization, and it really strives to help people who have a desire to turn their lives around.
Chris talked about how the interview process works. “You can tell a lot about a person by working with them in the field; if we like what we see, we ask them back for an interview.” They have regular communication, referrals, and participation from therapists and social service organizations within Santa Cruz County, and do a lot of group work as well. In addition to cooking and eating with one another everyday, they also hold a weekly group circle to address any issues and ask a general life-affirming question to be answered as a sharing exercise. Financially, HGP has it pretty set. Along with a fair amount of private community donors (including their landlord, who leases them the land for $1/year) and some grants, they also make value-added products to sell at a storefront in downtown Santa Cruz. This includes their dried herb mixes, dried flower bouquets, and canned goods.
While we were there, we purchased some of their delicious rosemary and sea salt brownie mix and the season’s first batch of strawberry jam (yum). They also have a 40-person CSA, in which they offer both “u-pick” and “we-pick” options. “I feed my community by growing this big ass garden!” says Mike E., who has been working with HGP for 7 years. “I like to think of myself as a mechanic of the land.”
Andrew, who has been with the program since October, took on showing us the greenhouses and the dried flower operation. “[Farming] is always something I wanted to do, so I took to it pretty quick,” Andrew says as he points out all the tomato varieties fruiting in the hothouse. Mike T., another employee, shared with us his story of how he got to HGP; each individuals’ love for the job, the community, and the bumpy road that brought them there offers suggestion into the intense impact this organization truly has on peoples lives. HGP provides a job, community and sense of purpose to those who have been forgotten. It’s not a government program handing the poor money, or a religious group providing a bed and canned food. These are real people taking care of each other and teaching one another how to take care of the planet. The dirt is where life starts, and therefore a good place to begin when you feel you have lost your way. This is a lasting solution that will benefit everyone.