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Local Connection: Homeless Garden Project

We talked to Darrie Ganzhorn, Executive Director of the Homeless Garden Project (HGP). She has been working there since 1991 and has been the Executive Director since 2008. Talking to Darrie was honestly one of the most inspiring experiences that has come from writing this blog. She knows her programs inside and out, has spent decades developing them, and truly cares for this community.

Some history

Started in 1990, The Homeless Garden Project is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. Darrie herself started as an intern. After majoring in Biology and doing research, after her first child was born, she realized that she wanted to give back in a very direct way -- helping people meet their most basic needs. Her first project with HGP (in 1991) was writing their newsletter, a project created by the desire to connect to trainees about their lives, and inspire them to decide what changes they hoped to make with the support of the project. While most of her early writings were based on interviews, one critical article called “A Day in the Life of the Homeless Garden Project” was written by a trainee.

The process of interviewing and documenting the trainees’ experiences and “letting people’s stories be told,'' eventually led to Darrie’s first position at Homeless Garden Project, working one on one with trainees. Over time, this position evolved and the Project hired a social worker to supervise a group of social work interns who meet with trainees and create trusting relationships. These relationships become the basis of support to trainees in their process of setting goals and solving problems in their lives.

The Project

Currently, the Homeless Garden Project provides spots for 17 trainees.Trainees work 20 hours per week for minimum wage and must be enrolled in the program, where they learn job skills like team communication, and enjoy the camaraderie that farmwork, and creating value added products, can provide. The program takes up to one year to complete. Each year, two graduate trainees are promoted to Crew Lead, where they can put in an additional year of work while practicing supervisory skills. Much of the rest of the program is staffed by volunteers. Volunteer hours can be as little as a day (which happened frequently with corporate sponsorship groups before the pandemic) and deeper relationships tend to evolve with interns who work 8-12 hours a week.

One goal and result of trainee-volunteer interactions is a perceptual shift regarding homelessness and the community. When volunteers are able to hear the whole story from someone experiencing homelessness, it helps them understand how someone became homeless and how they might move out of homelessness. The change in perceptions goes both ways, as the trainees, previously isolated from society by harsh experiences in what can be an indifferent-feeling world, come to a new understanding of their community and are able to feel support and caring from their volunteer partners. At the same time, trainees are often asked to teach volunteers how to do something on the farm. As teachers, they get to experience being a source of knowledge, an expert, and someone making a valuable contribution to the community.

The Project aspires to create a sense of belonging within the farm’s team, which then bridges to the community as a whole. Going through the program together creates strong bonds among trainees and this fellowship extends to work with volunteers, customers, and beyond.

Of course, with the high cost of living in Santa Cruz, there are many systemic issues that the County is trying to address. However, in 2019, 100% of program graduates got jobs and 78% of them secured housing. A portion of program participants end up in SLEs (Sober Living Environments), more structured living environments where rent is often more accessible. SLEs are managed by a variety of different organizations supporting people in recovery. When asked how many trainees are in recovery, Darrie said that the makeup of program recipients varies from year to year. Word of mouth among friends is one of the strongest sources of referral for HGP, so if a leader is in an SLE, the HGP may get many participants from there for a year or two..

Other referrals may come from local service providers or organizations that serve “returning citizens,” who are reentering society after incarceration. Pre-pandemic, Darrie did several presentations at the jail. Project Connect is another program that seeks to get people experiencing homelessness to an orientation, from which they may be enrolled to work for two weeks as a Trial Hire. If that period goes well, they enroll in the program for the long haul. While the program is much in demand, the problem with waitlisting potential trainees is that they may prove hard to get in touch with later.

Darrie wanted to address some common misunderstandings about HGP. It seems that some community members think it’s day labor, but actually trainees need to be enrolled in the program, which, as discussed above, can last for up to a year. Also, for people experiencing homelessness, they may not realize how positive and enjoyable the work itself is until they are on the farm. The purpose of HGP is not to train people to be farmers, but to use farming as a meaningful, fulfilling way of bringing people together and establishing supportive relationships. Trainees learn the value of being accountable to each other, and connect because they are experiencing some of the same issues. They are generous with each other, often pooling their limited resources to help a team member in distress.

The Schedule

The Homeless Garden Project program officially starts in March, although trainees may join any time there’s an opening. Here’s what their year looks like: March through October, they are engaged in farming Tuesday through Friday from 9am-2pm. Starting in October, they are on the farm for two days and spend the other two in the workshop making products. In November and December, they continue making products and getting ready for the holiday season. January and February there are other tasks to do, like take inventory, and do some production for Valentine’s Day. Also during this time, the program operates a series of intensive workshops preparing trainees to apply for jobs, write a resume and conduct interviews.up with a few exercises. Trainees are asked to explore their strengths and interests -- taking a personality assessment, defining their skills and accomplishment in the broadest sense, thinking about what work would be meaningful for them in the world. Out of this process, they also receive assistance with writing resumes, cover letters, gathering references, dressing for job interviews, and looking for employment opportunities. Many graduates of HGP are drawn to social services, hoping to give back to other people experiencing similar struggles and challenges.

Adjusting to the Pandemic

Like all of us, HGP has had to make adjustments due to the pandemic. When the virus first struck, they continued with their farm operations, training, and CSA recruitment, but shut down the volunteer program, store fronts and farm stand. They evaluated their online presence, and started being more creative, by bundling products together, for example.

Of course, they also created curbside pickup for their farm stand and enacted new COVID sanitation practices and protocols. They cut back their volunteer hours and currently employ just three volunteers per day, with 10 outdoors on the farm on weekends, all in masks. Fortunately, too, HGP was finally able to get things rolling with some trial hires in June.

Darrie and HGP have been really impressed with the reaction of the County during this crisis, and the services they have made available to people experiencing homelessness in our community. They have expanded shelter availability, made social distancing possible, and allowed people to stay in the shelter all day, instead of leaving during the day and returning at night. This enabled people to shelter-in-place without having their own homes. Darrie has maintained a weekly call (now bi-weekly) with the County and coordinated with the City and County on hiring trainees as the shelter staff. HGP trainees, she said, have what it takes to be dependable employees in emergency situations, and many are drawn to work in human services because of their own experiences.

The Future

Finally, we talked about the future of the Homeless Garden Project. HGP has a 20 year lease (with three 5-year renewable terms) for a 20-acre site on Pogonip. Up to 9.5 acres will be devoted to farming. There will be a small garden center, a classroom space, a kitchen, office, greenhouses, and a barn. They are ready to begin construction, but are awaiting approvals from the City. The City is conducting tests for potential impacts from historic skeet shooting activity on the farm site. The Project expects results this summer.

They are envisioning this land as a permanent farm, where they will plant orchards and perennials. The plan is to begin amending the soil and bring the entire training program up there in the next year or two. Once the farm is established, by the second year they may be able to double the number of trainees, and then eventually bring it up to 50. Since trainees have been so successful, the hope is both to expand the local program to try to be able to reach more people, and for it to serve as a model to be replicated in other communities.

Every year, the HGP has staged a great fundraising dinner called Sustain Supper. In previous years there have been up to 200 guests and some amazing keynotes speakers. This 30th year, they are hoping to host a pick up dinner. They have a surprise keynote speaker and should be announcing details soon. Learn more about this and other HGP events by signing up for their email newsletters, or liking them on Facebook.

For more information on how you can give or get involved visit their website. To learn more about their founder Dr. Paul Lee, visit his website. Or, of course, you can shop!


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