Community Supported Homeless Farming
Story and photos by Jered Lawson
A year and a half ago, Bill Tracey stood on the corner of Chesnut and Mission clutching a piece of cardboard that read “Homeless and Hungry: will work for food.” Now Bill works with a group of homeless people who take these words literally, growing food not only for themselves, but for the surrounding community as well. In just two years, over forty homeless people, a committed staff, and countless volunteers have turned a 2.5 acre vacant urban lot in Santa Cruz, California into a thriving organic garden.
After the gardeners take their portion of the harvest, much of the food goes to community members, or “shareholders”, who support the garden financially. A percentage of the produce is sold to local stores, restaurants, and folks at the farmers’ market. The rest is donated to homeless shelters and free-meal programs. Bill, now project supervisor, says “other homeless projects can give you files, reports and statistics, but we can give you a flat of strawberries.”
The Homeless Garden Project offers homeless people an opportunity to move from the margins of society to the center of community activity. For shareholders the project offers a chance to direct their dollars into socially and ecologically responsible farming. As if this weren’t enough, school kids and University students get to learn about the roots of homelessness and the roots of the food they eat. Finally, for many Santa Cruzans, the garden provides solace amidst the sweet smelling herbs, nutritious vegetables, and colorful flowers.
The garden offers diverse flora with a mixed crew of gardeners. There’s Peter, a homeless trainee; Darrie, a mother of two; Paddy, a volunteer handyman and gift-giver to the garden; and Phyllis, a vivacious 82 year-old who asserts “I don’t have to die to get to heaven ... this place is heaven on Earth.” Both Mac, a humorous and stately homeless man, and Mike, a “practical idealist” university intern, work with groups of children in the Garden. According to Lynne Basehore, the Project Director, “the garden has been useful to those who simply need to witness life’s abundance. Most of all, it has been a renewal for long-term jobless and homeless citizens of the community.”
With over 2,000 homeless people in Santa Cruz County it’s no wonder there’s a waiting list for the fifteen paid positions available at the Garden. When a position does open, prospective employees volunteer a short while to see if they are truly interested in the work. If so, they begin at a minimum of twelve hours a week and attend the weekly meeting. Workers are familiarized with procedures of the garden, and then choose an area for in-depth training. For Skooter it was compost, for Octaciano, the greenhouse. Jane Freedman, the Garden Director, trains the gardeners in bed preparation, composting, cultivating, planting, harvesting, and selling produce at the farmers’ markets.
The weekly meetings provide group members with an opportunity to air concerns, make collective decisions, and work through any pressing problems. A rules committee — made up of five of the homeless workers and two of the staff — compiles and presents a list of rules that are then agreed upon by the larger group. Developing and enforcing their own rules gives the workers a voice in decision-making that they are generally denied elsewhere. Some of the rules: “When scheduled for work do not come high, drunk, or hung-over: If you do, you will be sent away immediately and the consequence is suspended paid work until nine hours of volunteer work are completed.” “No sleeping at the Garden. Anyone caught camping is kicked off the project.”
Some workers find housing through work at the Garden, though most sleep in local shelters during the winter and camp out in the summer. A city-wide ban on camping keeps homeless citizens in fear of police waking them at night with $160 fines. Homelessness, a crime against humanity, is now a criminal act in Santa Cruz.
The Garden’s pay, $5-$6 an hour for 12 hours a week, may not be a living wage. But Darrie Ganzhorn, a garden employee, feels the money is only “one piece of the puzzle. It’s part of the network needed to get one’s life together.” As another gardener says “the work has grounded me. It’s stabilized me to where I can actually go out and enroll in school. Otherwise I’d be too scattered. You know, hustling to get this or that. Since I’ve worked here, I’ve moved to a safe place to sleep at night.”
Purposeful work at the Garden enables many of the homeless to make changes in their lives. Octaciano says “Las plantas crecen si les das cariño” — the plants will grow if you care for them. The caring the homeless give to the Garden is reflected in the renewed care they give themselves. This can mean getting a new set of teeth, quitting the bottle, or finding shelter.
At a County hearing where the Garden requested funds, Lynne, the Garden’s director, made an analogy between composting and providing jobs for the homeless. Just as discarded organic waste is brought to the garden and recycled into life-giving compost, the homeless, marginalized and discarded by society, come to the Garden and regain a sense of worth and purpose.
Paul Lee, an internationally renowned herbalist, former UCSC Professor of Philosophy, and longtime advocate for the homeless, inspired Lynne Basehore and Adam Silverstein in May of 1990 “to transform the vacant lot into a healing, productive garden.” Paul, after receiving a donation of herb plants from a store in Carpenteria, California, knew that “if we had a couple thousand plants on hand we would have to get them in the ground; hence, the Homeless Garden Project!”
Lynne began recruiting homeless workers from the shelter to come and work for a few hours here and there, getting the herbs in the ground. Since the herbs needed watering, and since Adam had experience in irrigation systems, he too became a part of the crew. As with most projects, funding quickly became an issue. Paul’s ex-brother-in-law and accomplished actor Harrison Ford was “appealed to and kindly sent a check.” After nine months of volunteering, Lynne, Adam, and the homeless crew finally had regular paid hours. Lynne took on the administrative functions as Project Director and Adam became the Garden Director. More homeless people were hired to grow a variety of vegetables and flowers, as well as the herbs.
Jane Freedman became director in November 1991, after Adam decided to do similar work in Colorado. Jane apprenticed at the University of California at Santa Cruz Agroecology Farm and Garden for six months, after which she stayed on to impart what she learned to new students. Her sustainable agriculture skills, teaching ability, commitment, and sense of humor have been central to the success of the Garden Project. In reference to the “horticultural therapy” aspect of the garden Jane once joked, “We may not have any couches, but we certainly have a lot of beds.”
The Garden uses Alan Chadwick’s French-intensive/bio-dynamic, raised-bed method of gardening. The Garden’s “bio-intensive” practices include composting, crop rotation, companion planting, drip irrigation, and high species diversity. The raised beds were “double dug” with fork and shovel. A rototiller is sometimes used to turn the soil, but hand tools are preferred for cultivating, shaping beds, planting, and weeding. No pesticides, herbicides, or other petrochemicals are used on the crops, so the food is particularly safe to eat.
As Chadwick liked to say, “Give to nature, and she will repay you in glorious abundance.” Local restaurants, cafés, horse stables, landscapers, and neighbors give to an innovative composting system at the Garden. They deposit organic materials into windrows (long piles of decomposing matter that generate compost in 3 to 6 months) and bins (where compost mix is moved daily from bin to bin, finishing in 16 - 20 days). The system provides jobs in transporting and turning of “waste” into nutrient-rich matter. Adding compost to the soil helps build a fertile, water-retaining structure, providing the base for stronger pest-resistant plants and higher yields.
Funding and Resources
Money for salaries and wages comes from a variety of sources. One third of the budget is covered via Community Supported Agriculture (selling shares of the harvest to the community), as well as through the sales of produce and flowers at local farmers’ markets, restaurants, and natural food stores. Funds are also raised through special events, grant and letter writing, awards, and direct campaigning. The Project was selected by Visa Card holders of the local Santa Cruz Community Credit Union to receive 5% of the money generated from the use of their cards. The New Leaf Community Market began a unique system of fundraising, by issuing 5¢ “enviro-tokens” earned by shoppers upon returning paper bags. The tokens are given to the non-profit organization of their choice. So far the Garden has been the community’s favorite, generating more than 5,000 tokens in 3 months. And finally, the Garden receives subsidies from the local Job Training Partnership Act (JTPA), the American Association of Retired People (AARP), and the Veterans Affairs Job Training Program.
The community provides a variety of benefits to the gardeners. One vegetarian restaurant gives the project free-meal tickets in exchange for produce. A local laundromat, “Ultramat”, provides the gardeners with a monthly allotment of “Ultrabucks” to use for washing their clothes. Some of the gardeners have coupled up with volunteers who assist with basic needs; from a bed roll for the night, to a job or housing opportunity. One gardener received assistance with his resumé, which he then used to get a job with the University’s food service.
Most recently, from the organizing efforts of volunteer Nancy Wicks and City Councilwoman Katherine Beiers, the garden has started a dental program. With funding from Medi-Cruz, Medi-Cal, and private donors, as well as inexpensive cleanings and x-rays from a local college and reduced rates offered by local dentists, three of the employees at the garden have received extensive dental work. “One thing most homeless people have in common is dental problems. It’s hard to get a job with no teeth. With a little help from my friends, I got a new set,” said Bill Tracey. Beiers was motivated to help Bill when he was landscaping her house. “I told him, ‘Help yourself to the apples,’ and he looked at me and said, ‘There are two things you can’t do without teeth: kiss a girl and eat an apple’.”
The Garden is also a magnet for contributions: clothes, a computer, and even a couple of trucks. With the latter, the gardeners could hire themselves out for landscaping, home gardening, mechanical work, carpentry, painting, etc., to supplement their income. Lynne says the extra work is not only monetarily rewarding, but also helps bridge the gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots.” One of the workers developed enough trust with a neighbor that she asked him to live in her house for a month while she was away.
Community Supported Agriculture
In the Fall of 1991 the goal of self-sufficiency was raised. Many felt that in striving to cover expenses through the sale of produce, too many of the social service aspects of the Project would be sacrificed. Then this idea surfaced: garner support by asking the community to directly invest in the garden. A working model of this kind of relationship already exists, known as Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). [See Rain, Vol. XIV, No. 2]
In basic terms, CSA is an economic and social model for agriculture in which a farm or garden’s budget is secured in advance by the consumers. Neighbors form a direct relationship with the Project through purchasing “shares.” The costs and risks of producing the food are shared among those who will eat the dividend.
The CSA model allowed the Garden to become partially self-sufficient, since shareholders commit to covering the agricultural costs, including the garden director’s salary, seed, water, etc. With this guaranteed support, the pressures and instabilities of competing in a capitalist market are lifted. This frees the Project to concentrate on its more central work: growing food and healing people.
The CSA also provides a structure to connect shareholders to the food they eat, to the land where it’s grown, and with the people who grow it, while simultaneously addressing the problem of homelessness as a community. Shareholder Steven Beedle says “the CSA has meant guaranteed access to the freshest organic produce at a great price, supporting the much needed assistance to homeless people, and having a say in all issues that are confronting the Garden. There’s a sense of involvement, with people doing great work and benefitting in the process.”
Another way to strengthen a supportive community is through harvest festivals and solstice celebrations. Recently over 300 community members attended a Midsummer’s Feast and Raffle at the Garden. People planted, harvested, danced and mingled to the blue-grass rhythms of the band “Harmony Grits.” Joseph Schultz, a well-known local chef at India Joze restaurant, cooked up the harvest from noon until dusk. Then, under the full moon, a bicycle and other donated items were raffled off, raising over $1,200 for homeless services. A fun and fruitful day indeed!
Along with building community as a means to end homelessness, the folks at the Garden also understand the constant need for outreach and education. So in the winter of 1990, the Garden began a relationship with the local university. From the university’s Community Studies program came a group of ten interns that met once a week to work in the Garden and discuss with Paul Lee the workings of non-profit corporations and the historical context for the loss of “the integrity of the organic.” They also helped Paul with research for his recent book The Quality of Mercy: Homelessness In Santa Cruz, 1985 - 1992.
Last Spring, 28 students from a variety of disciplines — Environmental Studies, Sociology, Psychology, Community Studies, Literature, Philosophy, and Economics — aided in all areas of the Project. Mike Rotkin, a lecturer, shareholder and former Santa Cruz Mayor, said the Garden “involves UCSC students in helping homeless members of our community in a way that allows them to move beyond stereotypes about the homeless.”
The Project also involves local elementary, middle and high school students. Groups come for tours and often pitch in with the work. Some groups spend time reflecting on their experiences in discussion or through journal writing. Chantalle, an 8th grader, wrote, “I have really loved meeting all the different people, gardening, and just being out in the fresh air. It’s a great way to learn. I think I used to be kind of afraid of homeless people, but now they have become real to me ... human beings.”
A Homeless “Homeless Garden”
The future of the Garden is precarious. There is an interest on the part of some of the current city council members, the city manager, and a very small handful of neighbors to subdivide the 2.5 acre parcel into 16 costly, single-family housing units.
While the Garden staff originally signed a one-year lease agreeing that the occupancy of the parcel would be temporary only, the desire to continue at the current site is shared by a far greater majority than those who want development. The staff, workers, CSA members, and neighbors are meeting to discuss ways in which the Garden can gain security for long-term planning. While many understand the city’s budgetary crisis, they do not see the sale of this asset as sound or appropriate. The long-term benefits of preserving the land and maintaining the Homeless Garden Project outweigh the short-term monetary gains from sale of the land.
It is probable that if the garden had to leave the highly accessible Pelton St. location, it wouldn’t disband, just relocate. However, since all of the other possible locations for the Garden exist on the city’s periphery, moving would make access harder and limit the kind of exchange between homeless workers and neighbors that has been so vital to its success.
Most importantly, moving threatens an important project which serves as a model for an entire country in need. With 4,000 to 5,000 acres of prime agricultural land being lost each day to suburban development , and the number of homeless and jobless growing at a similarly alarming rate , there is a serious need for projects that preserve land for local food production, and that employ marginalized people. Within our densely populated urban areas the numerous vacant lots could be utilized to provide jobs, food, beauty, and a sense of community.
The Garden demonstrates that ecologically sound, socially just, and economically viable projects are possible. What’s needed now is the motivation, determination and commitment of individuals who recognize the potential in people, and the land, to heal, take root and grow. Michael Walla of the Homeless Garden Project says “the Garden is showing we’re people with pride, people willing to struggle ... We don’t need someone who will carry us. We need someone who’s willing to help get us on our feet.”
This article is dedicated to Manuel Gutierrez who recently passed away from the pain the world placed in his spirit. He sought solace in alcohol, which eventually took his life. And he gave theGarden so much. I love you and will miss you Manny.
Jered Lawson wrote his UC Santa Cruz Communities Studies thesis on Community Supported Agriculture and the Homeless Garden Project.
Above: Neighborhood CSA shareholders plant basil seedlings during the Garden’s Anniversary Party Gathering.
Below: Bill Tracey delivers the freshly harvested produce with a bike cart built by local trailer-maker John Welch.
Below: Bill, one of the Garden’s compost experts, checks the temperature and decomposition in the compost bins.
Below: Careful thinning of chard seedlings by Mac and Mark creates a strong, bountiful crop.
Below: Jane Freedman, the Garden director, and Lynne Basehore, Project Director take a break.
Below: The first day of the CSA harvest. Shareholders pick-up their delicious, organic vegetables at the Garden. Check-in lists, pamphlets and the blackboard help pick-up days run smoothly.