The Homeless Garden Project

I stumbled into the The Natural Bridges Farm on the westside of Santa Cruz one afternoon on a bike ride. This lovely parcel of land nestled between the ocean and Route 1 is cultivated by The Homeless Garden Project, a local non-profit that “provides job training, transitional employment and support services to people who are homeless.”

Upon learning that the project welcomes volunteers on an informal, “show up when you can” basis, I decided to spend a few afternoons playing in the dirt and finding out first-hand what goes on there.

I was welcomed by a woman in her late twenties who explained that she was a “trainee” with the Homeless Garden Project. Trainees are homeless people who have committed to a long-term work/study program with the organization. They are paid to work in the garden Tuesday through Friday from 10 to 2 doing every variety of task from weeding to harvesting vegetables and drying herbs and flowers. Lunch – which is some trainees’ only substantial meal of the day – is served every day at noon and consists largely of vegetables gathered from the farm. In addition to the experiential learning that happens as a result of getting their hands dirty, participants also attend talks on organic farming techniques and are given instruction by the permanent farm staff. Trainees are expected to set long-term goals for work and home life and to participate in regular counseling with the organization’s social work staff.  Successful completion of the program earns them a certification that opens doors to the many organic farming jobs that exist in California.

You can’t spend more than a few hours in Santa Cruz without noticing the city’s substantial homeless population. Perhaps the mild weather, the socially liberal attitudes of the residents, or the available community services make Santa Cruz a more appealing place of “residency” for those in transition. It seems that their presence is met with mixed feelings – I was told by a retail clerk the other day that she resonated with a bumper sticker that said “California: free for the homeless, crazy expensive for the rest of us.”

When I picked strawberries with the young woman who greeted me that first day, she explained that her homelessness was a result of medical expenses she had incurred. She had been diagnosed with a rare brain condition that required expensive surgeries, and after several years of treatment could no longer keep up with the payments. She and her son were sharing a room in the shelter in town because, as she explained, “no landlord wants to take a risk on someone with that many medical bills on their credit report.” In addition to being grateful for the work and direction that her trainee position was affording her, she was also very appreciative of the peace and quiet at the farm. She explained that living in the shelter was loud and chaotic, and that there were very few opportunities there for personal space, silence, and the chance for reflection.  I had never thought of that before.  She hoped that her certificate would help her find steady work on a local farm, and that somewhere along the way someone would take a chance on offering her and her son their own apartment.

In the process of planting vegetable starts, weeding, gathering flowers, and eating with the other trainees, volunteers, and staff, I’ve interacted with a cross-section of people at the farm that is representative of the demographic cross-section of the homeless community here. According to surveys, about half of Santa Cruz’s homeless have been without a residence for over a year. One-third of them have children, and three-quarters of them are men. About half of the homeless here have mental health issues, which is apparent when walking around town or visiting the local library. A third of homeless folks are grappling with some kind of substance abuse issue, and a third have a disability.  Before work every day, the trainees at the Homeless Garden Project have the chance to share their experiences, struggles, and challenges with any of these in a morning meeting.

Across the board,  the cards are stacked against these people when they apply for housing – a process that is challenging even for those with more resources. I, too, had to look for housing in the competitive Santa Cruz market recently, and it was not easy. I did not have enough of a loan history for many landlords’ tastes, and as a self-employed freelancer, I could not produce the paystubs they wanted to see. There were between ten and fifty applicants at every apartment open house I attended, and I walked away dejected from several that would have required me to submit a tax return. I was lucky enough to “be chosen” to rent a 500 square foot apartment – most likely because of my history of owning a house and the screen shot of a healthy bank account balance that I submitted as part of my application. Without that, I would have been in a similar boat as everyone I worked with at The Homeless Garden Project.

Our social structure has made it difficult to recover from bad choices and deviations from the well-worn life path. While I feel this when I attempt to explain my non-traditional career journey to would-be employers, I benefit enormously from the backing of a strong education and a family endowed with significant resources. No one working at The Homeless Garden Project has this cushion. I’m not sure if their “mistakes” are their fault, or the result of chance, bad luck, or the combination of social forces around them – or if they are even “mistakes” at all. What I am sure of is that these folks are in precarious circumstances, and that the solidity of a place to go and work, eat lunch, participate in a constructive endeavor, and be outside in a beautiful setting is a good thing. It gives me hope to see an organization that’s “taking a chance” on people whose cards have not turned up aces, reassuring me that empathy is still out there in the world.  And on a selfish level, it helps me to believe that if and when I continue to “make wrong turns” there will be someone out there to give me a hand.

Today I went out there to remember the good fortune of my birth, and to give a few hours of that away.  I don’t mind taking home a few free flower stems in exchange.




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