“A Beautiful Way to Live”: How One California Farm is Helping Individuals Experiencing Homelessness

Rep. Sam Farr and HGP’s Executive Director, Darrie Ganzhorn, tour the Homeless Garden Project’s farm.

Inspired by the National Transitional Jobs Network’s (NTJN) Getting America Back to Work Campaign, the Homeless Garden Project (HGP) recently hosted an in-district site visit from Congressman Sam Farr, California (D), at its three-acre organic farm in Santa Cruz.  Given Congressman Farr’s commitment to protect California’s agricultural sector and strengthen resources for vulnerable populations, HGP’s farm was the ideal spot for Congressman Farr to spend a sunny—and busy!—afternoon learning more about Transitional Jobs (TJ) programs for individuals experiencing homelessness.

HGP’s farm and its related social enterprises are the sites of its award-winning programs to provide job training, transitional employment, and supportive services to people who are experiencing or have formerly experienced homelessness.  HGP’s programming is distinctive, straddling the intersections of the urban agriculture and food justice movements; TJ programs; homeless services; and therapeutic horticulture.  HGP’s programming is also essential.  A 2011 survey of homelessness in Santa Cruz County estimated that over 9,000 individuals experience homelessness annually – that’s nearly 1 in 30, and job loss was the highest cited cause of homelessness.  What’s more, according to a 2011 assessment by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), California accounted for more than 1 in 5 people experiencing homelessness in the United States (or 21.4 percent).

To combat homelessness and unemployment while building a thriving community, workforce, and local food system, HGP provides a safe and structured farm environment where TJ participants harvest organic fruit, vegetables, and flowers; learn soft skills necessary to succeed in the unsubsidized labor market; and engage in the emotionally restorative processes of digging into the dirt, growing healthy food, and sharing delicious meals with the community.

Here, NTJN takes a closer look at HGP to see just what makes this program so exceptional.

Vocational and Therapeutic Horticulture
Make no mistake—HGP’s farm is the real deal.  With three acres of land to plant, farm, and harvest; a full roster of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shareholders to supply each week with organic produce and flowers; and an off-site retail shop featuring products that are handmade by TJ participants, HGP manages a full-scale operation.  This is definitely more than a “cute little garden,” says Executive Director Darrie Ganzhorn, who points out that the farm has real production goals and that its TJ participants learn the skills that make HGP’s operation successful, including how to cultivate organic produce and create value-added products such as dried flower wreaths and candles.

HGP is more than just a social enterprise, however.  In addition to its day-to-day farming and business operations, HGP engages its TJ participants in evidence-based therapeutic horticulture.  Therapeutic horticulture is a process that uses plants and plant-related activities to help participants improve their well-being.  Among its many benefits, involvement in horticultural activities has been shown to improve concentration and attentional capacity, reduce stress and anxiety, increase social interaction, and promote physical health.  “There’s a different pace of life” at HGP, says Ganzhorn, who emphasizes the healing aspect of HGP’s work.  The TJ participants agree.  In a blog entry about her TJ experience, HGP trainee Laurie Williams put it this way: “What better place than the beautiful and peaceful farm to cope, nurture, and ease my mind so I can heal. Daily stretches to start our day, healthy, organic veggies that we’ve planted and harvested, deliciously prepared daily lunches,…the space to get back in tune with nature and myself; what a beautiful way to live.”  We couldn’t have said it better!

A Community Impact
While HGP addresses the root causes of homelessness and builds self-sufficiency for individuals experiencing homelessness, the program also recognizes that there’s no better way to engage the whole community than around delicious food.  HGP’s programs aim to benefit its TJ participants, local community members, and the environment.  For example, to foster awareness of sustainable agriculture and food justice, HGP offers community-wide education programs on everything from how to compost to how to cook up a quick, healthy stir-fry.  HGP also invites the community to buy shares in its Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, which supports HGP’s work and gives community members access to fresh and local foods.  At the same time, HGP grows food for other local programs that serve individuals experiencing homelessness.  Finally, HGP always welcomes volunteers at the farm, where they’re able to learn agriculture skills and share hot lunches with TJ participants.

By serving and depending on the its volunteers, interns, customers, and TJ participants—all of whom form strong bonds through working, learning, and eating together—, HGP builds a community that breaks down the overwhelming sense of isolation felt by many individuals experiencing homelessness and builds a local commitment to social justice, food justice, and a healthy environment.

Every TJ Participant Has a Story
For HGP’s Ganzhorn, it’s essential to remember that there’s no such thing as “just another homeless person” —Ganzhorn knows that every TJ participant has a personal story, and she urges other people to remember this, too.  HGP helps its trainees find, or rediscover, their voices; for example, TJ participants are encouraged to share their stories during weekly morning meetings and gather together for communal lunches.  Reflecting on Congressman Farr’s visit to the farm, Ganzhorn recalls a moment in which a TJ participant explained that he came to HGP after a suicide attempt; for this participant, who built a strong supportive relationship with his HGP social worker, the farm was the place he felt most cared for as he recovered and moved forward.  For Ganzhorn, this man’s story made HGP’s work “real” by reminding the farm’s staff and visitors that every TJ participant has his own history, hope for the future, and stake in the farm.

Toward the Future
Ganzhorn’s commitment to HGP’s success is obvious as she talks about the program’s future, planning how to better serve the TJ program’s current population as well as extend programming to other groups.  In terms of the current TJ participants, Ganzhorn notes that working at the farm inspires some trainees to pursue careers in horticulture and agriculture.  For these TJ participants, Ganzhorn envisions second-year apprenticeships at other local farms to help trainees further develop their skills and knowledge base in a new environment.

At the same time, Ganzhorn is thinking about how HGP’s vocational and therapeutic horticulture model may benefit other underserved populations.  For example, Ganzhorn believes that HGP’s programs may be effective for returning veterans who are at risk of homelessness or who are experiencing PTSD.  Ganzhorn also has a special interest in engaging with at-risk youth who are disconnected from education and the labor market.

As HGP moves forward, NTJN is confident that this program will continue to provide its participants with top-notch services and its community with a vibrant example of social justice intertwined with food justice and sustainable agriculture.  Although we didn’t coin the phrase, it seems fitting – green thumbs up!

Are you looking to learn more about starting up or enhancing a TJ program that serves individuals experiencing homelessness? NTJN has the resources that can help.  A great place to start is our technical assistance brief, Tips for TJ Programs Serving People Experiencing Homelessness.   For more in-depth information, the NTJN also has a Working to End Homelessness Best Practice Series, which highlights how employment and homeless service providers, program staff, and policymakers can help individuals experiencing or at risk of homelessness become successful in employment.

By Caitlin C. Schnur, NTJN Research and Policy Intern
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About National Initiatives on Poverty & Economic Opportunity

Heartland Alliance’s National Initiatives on Poverty & Economic Opportunity is dedicated to ending chronic unemployment and poverty. We believe that every person deserves the opportunity to succeed in work and support themselves and their families. Through our field building, we provide support and guidance that fosters more effective and sustainable employment efforts. Our policy and advocacy work advances solutions to the systemic issues that drive chronic unemployment.

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