Garden Ripens Opportunity for Local Homeless | By Kara Foran - City on a Hill Press
Illustration by Louise Leong.
Photo by Molly Solomon.
Photo by Molly Solomon.

Natural Bridges Farm is just five minutes away from the Safeway on Mission Street, but it’s a million miles away from industry, school, traffic — and stress. The middle of this three-acre retreat is lush with flowers, quilted with fields of newly-planted strawberries and governed by a “farm cat,” which brushes past my leg with a welcoming purr.

This utopian oasis is where the Homeless Garden Project enables the homeless to accelerate their path to a secure life. For Lauri Girard, who has been working at the garden since March, the garden is a gateway to sobriety, jobs and a second chance at stable living. Despite the people milling about the HGP store, Girard sits composed over her wreath-making station, recalling her life up to the homeless project.

Then addiction finally conquered her otherwise functional lifestyle. Her physical appearance masks her past, one with a family and career as a former lab technician who has dealt with alcoholism and drug addiction since the age of 16.

“I’m really surprised I’m alive,” Girard said.

Girard spent years “strung out on heroin and alcohol, pretty much living under bridges and buildings … a pretty savage lifestyle,” she said.­

Girard was homeless for five years in Reno before giving sobriety another attempt in Santa Cruz. She joined Sober Living to overcome addiction, but had forfeited her job qualifications during her years of unemployment. Girard was jobless indefinitely.

“All my family thought I was dead,” she said. “[I thought,] ‘How am I supposed to support myself now?’”

Girard joined the Homeless Garden Project and credits the initial 10 months at the HGP with helping her combat the decades of substance abuse that unraveled her life.

“What I found out from working here is it’s way more than going out and doing farming,” Girard said. “We’re like a family. We support each other through a lot of struggles.”

The HGP celebrated its 20-year anniversary last October.

The project provides a therapeutic work environment for about 20 homeless candidates annually. They re-enter the workforce by gardening at the serene Natural Bridges Farm, where organic goods are sold. Enabling the homeless to work in a sober, supportive and purpose-driven environment is how the Homeless Garden Project confronts the issue of homelessness for willing and sober individuals.

The struggling economy is an additional barrier for homeless recovery. The 2009 Santa Cruz Homeless Report indicates that 4,624 people are homeless in Santa Cruz. Thirty percent cited job loss as their primary reason for homelessness. The HGP fills this employment void, financially compensating its trainees with minimum wage in its year-long program.

The Homeless Garden Project was co-founded in 1990 by Paul Lee, a former philosophy, religious studies and history of consciousness professor at UC Santa Cruz. He and co-founder, Paige Smith — the founding provost of Cowell College — started an organic garden at the university.

When the university introduced the use of chemicals and fertilizers on campus agriculture, Lee and Smith moved the organic garden off-campus. They then decided to use the garden to benefit the homeless community in Santa Cruz, transforming the garden into the outreach program it is today.

“The program serves and depends on the community volunteers, interns, customers and trainees who form strong bonds through the work,” according to the Homeless Garden’s website. “This ‘strengthened’ community breaks down the profound sense of isolation experienced by many homeless people.”

Individuals plant organic vegetables, fruit and flowers at the Natural Bridges Farm on West Cliff. The workers spend part of their work hours making dried flower and herb wreaths to sell to the community.

Photo by Molly Solomon.

The Women’s Organic Flower Enterprise joined the HGP in 1994, extending the jobs of the workers. HGP participants grow flowers and herbs that they turn into wreaths to the community.

Farm supervisor Rachel Cohen said becoming part of the HGP team is competitive due to limited slots and high expectations. Not just anyone can work at the garden — people must commit, she said.

“It’s kind of like we’re being parents, in a weird way,” Cohen said. “We don’t want to be telling them what to do, but we’re really trying to look out for them. So when we’re hiring people, we’re looking for individuals that are going to fit, people that are at that place, that aren’t going to lash out.”

The workers at the HGP must be serious about working at the garden and the Homeless Garden Shop. Supervisors screen prospective trainees to ensure that they are committed to sobriety and have goals in mind for the future.

Matt Guerrieri has volunteered at the Homeless Garden Shop and the farm for 17 years, so he knows what it takes for a homeless person to turn their life around.

“The people who do sign up have to sign up with an understanding that they’re going to be here for a year,” Guerrieri said, “and that they are intent on changing their life for the better and getting out of homelessness. That’s a requirement. Not everybody lives up to that. If they don’t, then they’re asked to leave the program.”

The Homeless Garden provided 10,448 hours of paid job training in 2009, but those hours were only given to 21 people, because there is not enough space or money to accommodate any more workers at the farm.

Money is the HGP’s biggest hurdle. Combined funding from the city and county constitutes less than 5 percent of the garden’s budget. The HGP staff works hard to make up the remaining 95 percent through sales and donations.

The garden sells “crop shares” to the community, which allows residents to pay to plant and harvest their own crops at the farm or have the trainees do the work for them. In 2009, crop shares and store sales constituted 25 percent of the project’s revenue. The garden’s annual holiday store is a big breadwinner. It raked in about $50,000 this winter.

Donations constitute the rest of the HGP’s funding, but none of these revenue streams suffice.

The project costs $400,000 a year but survives on only $300,000, HGP board president Mark Primack said. He emphasized the exhaustion of underpaid and overworked employees trying to keep the organization afloat.

Photo by Molly Solomon.

While the garden may not solve the homeless plight, it makes an impact. The project helps people like Don Lessard, who has a roof over his head but needs a place where he can transition back into the workforce.

Lessard volunteers at the garden nearly every day. After moving to Santa Cruz from North Carolina, Lessard began a journey that he calls his “sabbatical.” Referring to his family history of mental illness, he said that for him the garden has offered a change of pace and a newfound community.

“If you serve your community here, you may be the one that receives the best benefits,” Lessard said.

While many HGP workers are homeless, there are also many low-income or previously homeless trainees.

Lessard has a roof over his head, and is not part of the trainee program but frequently goes to the garden. He is in a transitional period of his life and chooses to volunteer at the garden to stay happy and calm.

“This is my medication,” Lessard said, tending to some flowers. “I come here and it doesn’t matter if I’m working with a bunch of people, or strangers, or the regular crew that I know really well, it relaxes me completely.”

The Homeless Garden Project supports Girard by offering her a résumé-building job that helps them learn job skills such as punctuality, teamwork and horticultural training for agricultural jobs.

A history of homelessness makes job-searching challenging for many. Thirty percent of respondents in 2009 cited job loss as the primary reason for their current homelessness, according to the 2009 Homeless Census and Survey.

Being out of work for years and having no address hinders homeless people in a competitive job market. The HGP helps its workers break through the stigma of being homeless and adjust to having an occupation.

“You don’t think of a person that’s educated, has a career, has a good job, ending up homeless,” Girard said. “It’s really hard to get employed … That’s why this place is phenomenal. It’s an asset to have a pass to come here.”

Girard is currently one of an annual 20 people involved in the HGP — a sliver of the Santa Cruz homeless population.

While the project has grown over the last 20 years, it cannot flourish without financial backing. HGP slots are limited due to funding and space, two issues that the project’s board members are all too familiar with.

Members of board of directors deals with the constant financial woes, serving as mediators between the Homeless Garden Project and the city.

Board president Primack is a former city council member who has been on the HGP board for 12 years. Primack’s day job is as an architect, but he devotes his volunteer time to the homeless garden.

Primack criticized people’s apathy towards homeless people. He said that society forgets that homelessness represents people in struggle and not just a buzzword.

“It’s like any other issue,” Primack said. “It becomes politicized, the people become objectified. When you’re there, and everybody’s engaged in planting, digging and harvesting — they’re all people.”

Girard said that when she was homeless, she essentially ceased to be what society defines as a person.

“What makes me sad is they don’t see the person behind [the addiction],” she said. “It’s very hurtful to be out there on the street and have people look at you in disgust, because you are a human being.”

Illustration by Louise Leong.

The Homeless Garden Project offers a place where homeless people can receive the help they need to reverse their situation.

“People come to us and agree to show up each morning four or five days a week, train, do work,” Primack said. “And when they come and they’re fed healthy organic food that they’ve learned to grow and they relearn the habit of showing up, that’s accomplishment.”

Not only does the HGP confront homelessness in a hands-on manner, but for Primack it shows what makes Santa Cruz a city worth moving to.

“This is the organization that speaks to me,” he said. “I came to Santa Cruz in 1976. I probably arrived in Santa Cruz with less than $50 in my pocket. And I survived here. To me, the reason I wanted to be here was because it was a community that accommodated [all individuals].”

Primack works passionately to move the Homeless Garden Project toward a more effective future.

“What we need to do is be on Pogonip,” Primack said. “And the city and the county need to help us get there.”

Pogonip is a 614-acre greenbelt between UCSC and Highway 9. It weaves scenic trails down to an open meadow surrounded by lush forest. Plans to move to Pogonip have been in place since 1998. The HGP plans to occupy 12 of those acres in about five years, which would give the garden four times the amount of land it currently occupies.

Bureaucratic paperwork and the long process of city backing make the move to Pogonip challenging. But this plan is a step up from the three acres of garden at Natural Bridges that HGP currently works with.

The city is concerned about drug use at Pogonip, as the Santa Cruz Police Department does not have the funding to patrol the area.

“The way you make [an environment] safe is not to have a cop on every block,” Primack said. “It’s to populate an area. The way to make Pogonip a safe place for everyone is to [utilize] it.”

Cohen also looks forward to an increase in participants and emphasized how important it is that homeless people be provided the necessary tools to find their purpose.

“I would love to see not only how to write a résumé … but I would love to either plug our trainees into another program or have a workshop, or hire someone to teach people how to discover what they want to do,” she said. “Walk them through research, walk them through how to look for a job, walk them through how to apply to college.”

Cohen has only been with the Homeless Garden Project since June, but since then she has learned how debilitating homelessness can be. Many of the people who come to the garden have trouble acquiring the mindset needed to transition back into society.

“They’ve seen a lot,” she said. “A lot of their lives have not been great. They tend to not get easily bruised by something that maybe would affect us as much. In some ways that’s good, but it’s also kind of sad to me. They’ve been on survival mode for so long that they don’t know how to even dream or think about, what’s tomorrow?”

In order for the Homeless Garden Project to reach a larger sphere, funding and support are imperative. HGP workers insist that moving to Pogonip will help revive HGP’s attempt to solve homelessness, but a larger realm of action is needed for such a widespread issue.

“It’s not a solution to the problem,” Primack said. “It’s simply helping people who are in the problem.”

The Homeless Garden Project does not solve homelessness — it alleviates the problem for many, while urging community members to engage themselves in a national issue.

“In your own mind, in your own heart you can feel [the garden’s] definite effects,” said Lessard, while, as if on cue, a pack of ducks waddled over to a patch of flowers. “It’s healthy.”

For Lessard it’s therapy. For Girard it’s a second chance. The garden drives Girard toward a life she thought she would never get back.

“I’ve gained back my daughter,” Girard said. “She’s 28. She just had a baby, so I’m a grandmother. I’ve missed her high school graduation. I’ve missed her wedding. She’s willing to give me another chance.”

The garden has made it possible for Girard to simultaneously renew her education and recover. She recently graduated from the phlebotomy program at Cabrillo College, with hopes for reattaining the lab technician job she previously held for 13 years.

“I’ve never had a job like this before,” Girard said. “It’s like a sanctuary. It’s really therapeutic out there. I spend a lot of time … looking around in amusement because I’m not all fogged out anymore. I took a lot of things for granted before I became homeless.”