By Laura Fishman

In a 2005 Santa Cruz County homeless survey, one quarter of respondents said that lack of employment was their primary cause of homelessness. Dawn Coppin, executive director of the Homeless Garden Project, thinks that gardening may be eliminate that problem.

Started in 1990, the Homeless Garden Project is a transitional employment program that employs many of the county’s estimated 7,300 homeless people. The program provides homeless with information about economic and ecological sustainability through a series of lectures and hands-on work in a garden.

Horticulture Director Patrick Williams feels that the program’s casual learning environment lowers job anxiety among its participants.

“It provides a comfortable environment for people to become reaccustomed to the learning setting,” Williams said.

The hands-on component of the training program consists of lessons in gardening, harvesting, retail training, and customer service skills. Through the training, homeless men and women receive job experience for future employment in the community. In addition, the group operates a retail store on West Cliff Drive that sells the garden’s organic products.

Morrie Bores, a homeless man who has been working with the project for three years, is excited to be nearing completion of his job-training.

“I’m in the process of getting a job in landscape and design,” Bores said. “So I may not be homeless for much longer.”

Volunteers are an essential part of the Homeless Garden Project as well, joining homeless trainees in garden and office work, organizing events, and staffing the retail store.

“We get all types of volunteers here, from elementary school classes to senior citizens,” Williams said.

UC Santa Cruz fourth-year Anne-Marie Becker has enjoyed volunteering at the center while getting to know homeless people from her community.

“I like how it brings people together,” Becker said. “It’s been a great experience for me just learning about homelessness because we see it on a daily basis in Santa Cruz and it’s really profound to meet these people.”

Generosity from the Santa Cruz community is another key support system that the program relies on.

Local restaurant owner Cindy Geise recently donated a day’s profits from Ristorante Avanti to the Garden Project.

“I think the organization has potential,” Geise said. “I know their work and support it by shopping at their local store.”

The Homeless Garden Project is currently looking to expand by moving to a new 12-acre location in the Pogonip, a 614-acre greenbelt located east of the UCSC campus.

Executive Director Dawn Coppin feels the organization would become even more successful with the new land in Pogonip.

“It would be a permanent site where right now we’re farming on donated land,” Coppin said. “It’s a larger piece of land so we could put in more permanent structures.”

Regardless of future expansion, those involved with the program, including Patrick Williams, believe the it has already done a great deal of good.

“Most homeless people are isolated from the community, so it recreates a family,” Williams said. “I’ve worked here for 10 years and I’ve seen lots of people make great changes.”