The Homeless Garden Project Isn’t Your Average Community Farm

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A shaded outdoor area by the kitchen offers seating and a meeting space for volunteers. Photo by Lluvia Moreno

Tucked away from the bustle of city life, the Homeless Garden Project (HGP) sits at the end of the roughly paved Shaffer Road, overlooking UC Santa Cruz’s Coastal Science campus. Ocean air and uninterrupted sunlight drive this hidden gem to harvest each season. The HGP currently boasts pristine rows of peppers, basil, dahlias and even fresh heads of romanesco, in spite of the chilly autumn air.

The HGP is Santa Cruz’s non-profit, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. Created to support current and former houseless residents, HGP’s mission is to utilize agricultural practices to reacclimate participants into the local workforce. 

Justin Wright, the farm’s training and education supervisor, leads outreach when finding new members for the project. Once accepted, members participate in a year-long program. Trainees take seeds from propagation to harvest, while attending supplemental workshops. About 30 crew members have cycled through the farm so far in 2019, Wright said. 

“In the past month and a half, we’ve had five crew members get jobs,” Wright said. “One is now working for Fox Racing Shox, with an engineering background, one for Goodwill, one for Grocery Outlet, one working with a friend to create a house cleaning business and another person got a job at PetSmart.”

Operating as a center for professional training, community support and artistic expression, the HGP has taken the traditional CSA framework and turned it into a haven that directly benefits Santa Cruz’s houseless population. 

In 1998 the HGP’s farm moved to its current location after community members donated land. This allowed the project’s efforts to be keenly focused on “quality over quantity,” said volunteer and intern program manager Emily Redfield. 

“[I] love seeing at least four graduated trainees out in the community, one of whom works at New Leaf,” Redfield said. “We catch up and I get to ask how life’s going. She already got a promotion. We both get a lot from it.” 

A romanesco perfectly demonstrates the Fibonacci sequence in nature. Photo by Lluvia Moreno

The garden’s luscious vegetable patches, carefully crafted preserves and the beaming smiles across its members’ faces provide testament to the program’s focus on quality.

With 2,100 individuals experiencing houselessness in Santa Cruz county, 1,700 of whom live without shelter, the project brings economic relief to those in need. Its sustainable farming practices give members lasting skill sets, which they can add to their professional experience and resumés.

All of the HGP’s produce and products are certified organic, and are sold onsite at the project’s farm stand, as well as at its downtown storefront on Pacific Avenue. Nearly a third of the project’s revenue comes from this sister storefront — the Women’s Organic Flower Enterprise. The project also supplies produce to local businesses. In 2018, 11 local restaurants purchased produce from the garden.

All proceeds from this retail store go to the farm as part of the project’s self-sustaining structure.

Over summer, the HGP mainly focuses on training members in seed propagation. Crew members learn how to maintain the farm, cultivate plants, remove unwanted weeds and harvest their yields. 

Alongside its outstanding organic agricultural efforts, the HGP provides members with emotional support, counseling options, job training skills, meditation sessions, creative outlets and resumé-building skills.

The CSA program also holds a lecture series as part of its year-long training program. 

The Santa Cruz Credit Union comes to the farm to teach trainees proper finance management skills. The farm also holds workshops to help members improve and even expunge their criminal records. The HGP also recently hosted a sequence of art therapy classes. 

In January, the HGP plans to begin a massive, 10-week job series. The series will be focused on resumé and cover letter creation, interviewing skills and is set to include an employer panel to help educate trainees on professionalism and job acquisition tactics. 

As a nonprofit, the HGP receives any other necessary funding from private community donations and fundraiser events such as their upcoming “Spirit of Partnership” dinner, hosted in cooperation with Patagonia. The dinner will take place at the Santa Cruz Patagonia Outlet on Oct. 24. 

Mike Erickson, crop production manager and lead farmer, greeted guests and smiled when questioned about his role on the farm. 

“As lead farmer, I ensure that we grow what’s needing to be grown. Make sure all the rows are in line,” Erickson said. “But that’s just a title. We all chip in around here.”

While employment is restricted to houseless members, there are still many ways students can get involved in the garden’s efforts. They can donate to the farm stand and attend fundraisers. If students seek direct engagement, CRSN 55, “Service Learning Practicum,” offers internship opportunities at the farm, furthering the HGP’s holistic, community-based structure.