March 11, 2022 - Friday 10:30 am. Delaware Avenue at Shaffer Road, Santa Cruz, CA
The Homeless Garden Project
Ella Fleming - Farm Manager
Francesca Elezovic - Training and Education Supervisor
Omar Guzman - Volunteer Coordinator
Darrie Ganzhorn - Executive Director
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A gentle sea breeze and the welcoming spring sun encouraged me to take the gravel path over the railroad tracks to experience Natural Bridges Farm. Bikers were also enjoying the beauty and the lush green and smell of life at the farm. Next to the Pacific coastal bike path lies a three-acre farm without grand announcement.
A simple wood-chip driveway allowed entrance to what appeared to be a few small wooden structures, a few modest hoop houses, and the fields that surrounded them. It was volunteer day on the farm today, and Darrie Ganzhorn, the Homeless Garden Project’s executive director was there speaking with a representative from the city of Santa Cruz.
In the greenhouses, I met Lynn and Sunny, volunteers who took on seeding for the day. They were obviously having a great time together as old friends joking around. As I surveyed the field blocks, I spotted about two dozen people in various clusters listening to the directions Omar Guzman, Volunteer Coordinator, Ella Fleming, Farm Manager, and Mike Erickson, Crop Production Manager were giving them. I sensed a community of neighbors eager to work and willing to cooperate to get the farm tasks done for the day.
While Omar was directing volunteers on their assigned tasks, I watched a strong woman vigorously weed whacking the tall grasses along the fenceline of the strawberry and tomato patch. While waiting for my assignment, I met Marvin and remarked about his delightful Scottish accent. He’s been out here volunteering for the past few years since COVID. He has an online sales business through Etsy, so he spends a lot of time behind a computer screen. Volunteer Friday is a day he looks forward to to enjoy the outdoors. He enjoys the feeling of doing something great and meaningful. It was also fun to watch the friendly exchange Marvin had with the fellow gardeners.
Sheila has been volunteering at the farm for many years. Sporting her large white sun hat and scarf with large cute sunglasses, she said “It makes me feel so good to be a part of a cause bigger than myself!” She and Christian, her farm partner for the day, were tugging on some irrigation lines to ensure that they were properly aligned and pinned down. Christian was wearing his sturdy straw hat and t-shirt, enjoying this moment of engagement in nature and peace. He remarked, “These types of farms make a huge difference in the community. It really helps with your mental self and spiritual healing.” Evidently, a sociology student at University of California Santa Cruz had just been around interviewing the trainees and workers as part of his research on how the Homeless Garden Project impacts the community.
One lady came over to chat with Martin. This was her chance to take a break from the intense broadforking and digging she was doing. Martin and I were doing our own digging with a heavy fork to be sure the soil was broken up. Not long after Mike helped me with the landscaping rake, Francesca sounded the large bell for lunch.
As we walked toward the central cluster of shacks, I spotted two men in the wooden kitchen. I could tell they were enjoying serving their homemade garbanzo bean-kale soup to the farm crew. I got to know Eric while waiting in line for the handwash station. With a big smile, Patrick filled my bowl and invited me to take some cornbread and butter. He assured me, “There’s more if you want it!” I thanked them both for their kindness in providing this deliciousness for me.
At a nearby table under the pavilion, I joined Eric for lunch. After brief introductions, he shared with me that he suffers from severe arthritis. Although he wants to work, his disability makes that pretty painful at times. Today, for example, after trying one of the tasks, he asked to be reassigned and found something that worked for him.
He told me about how he is navigating being homeless and trying to find a place to live. Encompass is an organization that works to find people housing. They are really good at finding leads for rentals in the community. “Thanks to them, my wife and I now have a housing voucher!”, Eric exclaimed.
Meanwhile, while they search for openings, Affiliated Faith Communities (AFC), a collection of community churches (Christian, Jewish, Hindu), supply a place to sleep for the night. It rotates each night. They arrange to pull a trailer full of sleeping mats to the next church assigned that night. “At least it’s a night’s sleep in a place that is secure, but it’s still a bit stressful. All that we have needs to fit into one suitcase. Depending on the church we have to be out between 5:30 and 9 in the morning.” Eric explained.
“When you’re homeless, you tend to lose a sense of community. When you can’t rent, it’s like you have no permission to live in their society. People who would normally look at you, now look down or look away. It especially hurts when they call their children away. The police come and tell us to move our car. It’s just no fun.”
“A few months ago, my wife’s car was stolen with all her homemade jams for sale inside. She makes and sells jam for a business and it provides us a very small income. Luckily we had insurance on the car and got back more than we thought the car was worth. A few weeks later the police found the car - and amazingly, all my wife’s jams were still in it. She borrows a friend's kitchen to make forty different kinds of jam and is always on the hunt for the organic produce to go on sale when it’s ripe and in season.”
Eric went on, “This is my third day on the job here at the farm. Life is still really hard, but I’m pushing forward. Things are looking up. Now I can make some money and keep gas in the car, pay the insurance, and pay for our storage unit.”
“To get a house you need a credit score of at least 600. Landlords don’t care if you have a Section 8 voucher or not. It took us a while working with our case manager from Encompass to get all the documents required: resumes, cover letters, and background checks. On top of that, the apartment needs to be inspected to be sure it meets all the criteria set out by the agency providing the voucher.”
Farm’s Supportive Environment
“Any community would benefit by this [job training and farm transitional employment program]. It gives people something to do, something to learn, and a connection to the earth. There’s no judgment here. I’m working alongside all walks of life. It’s about having respect for the people around you. We’re all just getting things done.”
After a two-week trial hire period, the job trainee applicants are able to be hired as a farm employee. During these two initial work weeks, each trainee commits to show up on time every day (four days a week - 9am to 2pm) and be ready for work. After those two weeks are satisfactorily completed, staff conducts an interview with the applicant. If the applicant is hired into the program as a trainee, the trainee begins to fill out their own time cards and meet with the training and education supervisor. For each two-month period, the trainee is encouraged to set goals in alignment with what would be considered normal progress through this rolling-hire, 12-month transitional employment. At two-month intervals, the trainee and supervisor sit down one-on-one to have their milestone review and set goals for their next milestone.
Eric needed to wash up, so I asked to sit with Hydie. Overhearing our conversation, she was eager to tell her story:
“I moved here from Denver because I had a lung condition. I was hoping that this climate would be good for me. Unfortunately, my housing fell through and so that forced me to start living in my car. God provides, however. There was no way I could find a “real” job. That’s when I found this place last October. This place has kept me from despair and depression. I feel more fit. My health is better. I even lost 20 pounds! I like working at the workshop for the past few months making wreaths. It’s been a bit difficult now making the transition to working at the farm. I feel quite exhausted at the end of the day. Yet, I’m committed to stick with it. I never thought I’d be here having so much fun growing things and learning how to garden! They’ll pay us minimum wage, $15 per hour for the time we work here.”
Hydie went on to explain, “At nine in the morning we start out by meditating for 3 minutes. It’s so great to be out here and hear the birds and see the butterflies and the hawks!”
Transitional Employment Strategy
Using the transitional employment strategy, the Project works with people who want to use the program to get into a job and housing. Transitional jobs Transitional jobs are defined as time-limited subsidized work experiences that help individuals who are chronically unemployed and have barriers to employment establish a work history and develop skills to access unsubsidized employment and progress in the workplace.
A Circle of Equals
Just then, we heard the bell ring again. I noticed the sign: “12:30 After-Lunch Circle”. As we hurried to clean up, Eric handed me his wife’s jam business card and said, “be sure to check out the strawberry rhubarb jam!”
Out in the open were placed two dozen lawn chairs of all colors, varieties and sizes in an approximate twenty-food diameter ring for the dozen of us who still remained after lunch. Ella the Farm Manager, Francesca, the Training and Education Supervisor, and Omar, the Volunteer Coordinator sat in the circle. They welcomed everyone to the circle and began by asking, “What have you been doing today?”
Each person got a chance to raise their hands and share. A farm graduate shared how she broad-forked all morning long. It wasn’t the first job she would have chosen. In fact, she avoided it in her first season. However, today she said, “it felt satisfying to do the digging and make it right when it wasn’t before.” Another trainee reported that they had finished transplanting one bed of leeks and two beds of cabbages. Someone shared about her experience mowing the cover crops. A few others had been weeding the lavender. Following this sharing, Ella was sure to thank the volunteers and trainees for the important work they had done.
To wrap up the circle, some of the volunteers, sociology students from UCSC, commented about the word “proprioception”. “That means knowing where your body is in space.” She continued by explaining how important good body mechanics are. Knowing your limits and not overextending yourself enables you to continue working tomorrow and the next day. Francesca finished with some announcements - a reminder to fill out your time cards.
Lives Touched by their Farm Experience
As we dispersed, Janel shared her experiences at the farm. She recommended I go to their shop downtown to read the book A New Harvest. It was written by a lady from Spain based on her experience at Natural Bridges Farm; the illustrations are based on the farm. As I prepared to go, I asked Mike, the Crop Production Manager, how he managed it all. He said, “Running this farm is like spinning plates; you just keep moving about to keep them all spinning.”