The homeless garden
By Joel Preston Smith
―A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit. (Matthew 7:18; King James Version)
(May, 2011) Janet O’Brien did what she was supposed to do; what any loving, desperate mother would do and in less than 21 days will be homeless.
Simple, yet convoluted. It’s not supposed to be that way, of course. It’s an unspoken rule that narratives about the chaos that ultimately lands a person on the street must open with a list of moral breaches, self-destructive acts, tearful confessions—and conclude with a summary of regrets.
But O’Brien who ponders her future as she tills the earth, growing food for others at the Homeless Garden Project in Santa Cruz, Calif.―has no regrets. She spends nights on the floor in a sleeping bag in her daughter’s three-room apartment overlooking a parking lot at an ocean-side tourist attraction; by day she’s a gardening trainee for a nonprofit that teaches landless, chronically hungry people how to be organic farmers.
The ironies are numerous. They populate the lives of the other 14 homeless men and women who work alongside O’Brien in the garden. For 20 years now, the garden has been a refuge and a training center for those who’ve been discarded―sometimes by themselves, sometimes by circumstance.
Until December 2009, O’Brien was an office manager at Portland State University in Portland, Ore. Her 27-year-old daughter Betsy, who has three young children, was struggling with a meth addiction. O’Brien,―53 at the time, accepted a court order to assume guardianship of the children. O’Brien gave her notice, packed for Santa Cruz and found a job within a week, bookkeeping for the Empire Academy, a high school for special needs children in Santa Cruz.
Empire crumbled; O’Brien watched it fall into bankruptcy, issue its last checks, close its doors last February. She’d been conscientious. Compassionate. She’d acted out of love, out of commitment, and the “return” on this “investment,” in a debilitated economy, will be homelessness. She’s making minimum wage while working part-time for the garden, which itself is struggling financially.
“I don’t think I could have done anything else,” O’Brien, now 56, says. “The day I got to Santa Cruz, I had to go to court with Child Protective Services. My daughter arrived for court high. It was clear she couldn’t take care of the kids, so the state awarded them to me.”
Darrie Ganzhorn, the garden’s executive director, points to O’Brien as an example of why stereotypes are salt in the wounds of the 14 men and women who help run the agency’s three-acre farm, bolstered in part by a you-pick CSA. They’ve been written off as “losers,” as self-destructive addicts and “malingerers,” but a closer look often reveals men and women who simply took a turn on a path whose terminal point, regardless of the content of the person’s character, was destitution.
“What I see in people here is a lot of physical and emotional pain,” says Ganzhorn. “ It’s a lot more complicated than ‘they’re all lazy,’ or “just addicts.’”
The garden, certified by California Certified Organic Farmers, is the oldest homeless rehabilitation program of its kind in the country (Seattle Tilth’s Youth Garden Works was originally developed by a different agency around 1996; the Pacific Garden Mission, in Chicago, was founded in 1877 but lists as its principal goal “religious conversion,” not employment or food production). In addition to teaching soil preparation, tillage, irrigation techniques, integrated pest management and greenhouse science, the agency contracts with the University of California-Santa Cruz for classes in computer skills and with local businesses to teach job-search and retention strategies. There’s a counseling component, one meal a day and links to other resources. Trainees can enroll for up to two years at a time (with rare exceptions).
In an effort to teach chronically impoverished people how to become entrepreneurs, the garden runs the Women’s Organic Flower Enterprise, a business that sells flowers (85 varieties last year) and wreaths in the garden store during the holiday season.
Brooke Smith, director of the Grassroots Action Network for the nonprofit agency WhyHunger in New York, N.Y., says, “It’s the most innovative and possibly successful program out there. They’re one of the pioneers for community-based food projects. They’re providing homeless people with skills that benefit the entire community.”
It’s something. It’s good, but good isn’t quite enough, admits Forrest Cook, the garden’s farm manager. According to Santa Cruz Mayor Ryan Coonerty, 1,400 homeless persons live within the county line. The garden has space and funding to train only 15 at a time.
“We’d have to be a hundred times bigger to be successful,” Cook observes. “We live with a kind of chronic acceptance that some people fall through the cracks.”
The question people always ask, of course, is “is it successful?” Is it worth the investment?
If success is defined as a significant jump in income, as an immediate release from pain and poverty, then the answer frequently would be no. Most gains are incremental, and some of those are tentative. O’Brien, for example, now has a small income, a new circle of friends and more resources than she did when she was unemployed. But on May 31 O’Brien’s daughter Betsy, now clean, working for a dermatologist’s office, will move into another home with her three children, and O’Brien will be on the streets. Her rent averages $700 a month, and she can’t afford a security deposit plus the first month’s rent.
It’s hard to look at those circumstances and say O’Brien has “been saved.” But if the definition of success encompasses instead compassion, better relationships, higher self-esteem, a sense of purposefulness, finding a community that needs and wants you, then the answer undeniably would be yes.
According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, California has 133,129 homeless. It should be obvious that the problem isn’t going to get resolved even on a local level by serving 15 people at a time. And yet it also isn’t going to get resolved for those 15 people (and the 15 who will follow in the garden’s next cycle of service) if no one steps in.
“We measure success by whether people have learned skills,” says Ganzhorn. “By seeing them becoming stable. Sometimes that means financially. More often than not it means emotionally.”
There’s a beauty and goodness, of course, in learning how to tend land. Or acquiring a skill as “simple” as running a cash register. It meant a big deal to Susie MacMillen, who came to the project in 2005 depressed, emotionally fragile, on the verge of homelessness. Her three sons had moved out, almost simultaneously, headed for college and independent lives. She sank.
Ganzhorn remembers her as a woman with intensely blue eyes, authoritative—and afraid. She’d been a National Merit Scholar, had nearly perfect SAT scores—and was terrified of being asked to run a cash register. MacMillen told Ganzhorn she’d do anything at the project “as long as I don’t have to deal with people.”
She evolved. She learned how to double-dig plant beds to aerate soil, how to seed plant beds, how to compost (all of which she preferred to do barefoot). And how to manage people.
Susie, says Ganzhorn, became “the glue that held the farm together” in 2009, when two crucial staff left for other work. It was Susie who knew “all the little details, where things are kept, how we assign tasks, how we work with the land, who to go to when you’ve got a problem that requires someone with special knowledge to fix it.”
She arrived “needy.” She became something essential.
She learned how to run a cash register. Liked it. In December last year, during the project’s holiday sale, MacMillen wrote, “Retail/register stuff is nothing I’ve ever wanted and have always been completely intimidated by; thanks to the Project, I discovered that I learned it really quickly and am really good at it!”
Overcoming that fear, and proving herself capable as a teacher for other trainees―as a person who dug, and seeded and watered, until something flowered in her―seems reasonable proof of success.
They were happy days, proud days, her last days. She died on December 26, at age 57, in a trailer fire in the early morning hours, after spending Christmas Day with her sons. The staff and trainees of the project held a memorial service for her last weekend, attended by more than 200 people.
It seems unjust that Susie should die so suddenly, so tragically, especially after coming such a long way. And when we think about O’Brien, about how her sense of responsibility led to imminent homelessness—again, there’s an overwhelming sense of unfairness. There ought (we want to argue) to be some kind of linear relationship between reaping and sewing. The Bible says so. There ought to be some universal law, as invariable as the speed of light— a rule that says if you act responsibly, you’ll be rewarded proportionally.
There isn’t. And it’s frustrating. Frustrating to everyone who sees poor people dismissed as “losers” because they’re struggling. For everyone who remembers Susie. For Susie’s sons. For O’Brien. Frustrating for everyone (it seems) who works with or at the Homeless Garden Project. It’s hard to feel hopeful when you know that goodness, just like “evil,” is “rewarded” with tragedy and suffering. To know good things sometimes bear evil fruit.
Beautiful things, good people...suffer, wither, die. This calls into question the value of “innovation,” and salvation, if the universe is somehow geared in such a way that it monkeywrenches the very idea of justice itself.
But compassion is gardening. To feel sadness and frustration over Susie and O’Brien is to be reminded that grief itself is a form of gardening knowledge. It is the incidental consequence of an almost “criminal” hunger to know and experience more. It was (according to our primal gardening story in the West) the price we allegedly paid to earn the right to leave a realm of blithe fantasy, one in which everything was freely provided, and nothing was earned, and nothing and no one ever died, and there was neither love nor fear nor joy nor sorrow because the garden then was comprised of an everlasting, womb-like, watery, warm, satiating ignorance.
To feel grief, to feel empathy and compassion for those who struggle―according to Genesis―is the consequence of “sin.” It’s something we inherited from the original scofflaws, who lost their lease on Easy Street because they wanted to know more than they wanted the safety that comes from not feeling.
According to this old story, we are all the children of hungry gardeners. We are all children of the homeless.
Homeless Garden Project at a Glance n Served: About 500 homeless trainees sinc e its founding in 1990
Top fund sources: 44% from private donations, 27% earned income
Staff: 4 full time, 1 part time
In the 2010 CSA basket: 13,430 bundles of flowers and herbs; strawberries, basil, cauliflower, chard, cucumbers, tomatillos and 21 other major crops
Current CSA members: 25 (120 record high)
Payoff for clients: Serves lunch, paid employment, training (and other support)