|By Suzanne Labry
If we were honest with ourselves, most of us would admit to having a preconceived notion of what a homeless person is like, even though we may never have actually known anyone who fits the description. It is especially doubtful that our stereotypical view would include the idea that the homeless person might be a gardener. That’s the problem with stereotypes — they’re mostly wrong. At a 27-acre master-planned community in east Austin called Community First! Village that is being built by a 30-employee nonprofit known as Mobile Loaves & Fishes, assumptions about homelessness crumble like a clod of loam after a hard rain.
Mobile Loaves & Fishes got its start in 1998 when Alan Graham and a small group of parishioners of St. John Neumann Catholic Church began delivering meals out of the back of a minivan to men and women they found living on the streets of Austin. Today the group has more than 18,000 volunteers, and in addition to the significantly broadened food ministry, their initiatives have expanded to include clothing distribution, a micro business program, housing opportunities, and their latest and largest effort, Community First! Village (CFV). CFV targets the chronically homeless, defined as those who have experienced homelessness for a year or longer, or who have experienced at least four episodes of homelessness in the previous three years and have a disability. Research has shown that permanent housing, coupled with supportive services, is a cost-effective intervention that keeps people out of homeless shelters, emergency rooms and jails.
Described as an “RV park on steroids” by Genesis Gardens Program Manager Heidi Sloan, CFV will, when fully complete, provide a creative mix of affordable, sustainable housing for 250 formerly homeless people, which is roughly one-quarter of the homeless population in Austin. There are three different types of rentable houses: 5th-wheel RVs, micro-homes (permanent structures having less than 500 square feet) and canvas-sided cottages. Formerly homeless residents in a woodworking program make furniture for some of the houses. “When people learn what the homes cost to rent, they say, ‘I could make that much panhandling every month!’ and we always respond, ‘Yes, but wouldn’t you rather earn the money in a dignified manner?’” Sloan says. “And then we provide them with opportunities to do that.” These opportunities include such micro-entrepreneurial activities as operating a waterless car wash; building furniture; street vending items such as bottled water; soap making; and selling honey and eggs.
The gated community will include its own bus stop; 24/7 security; a medical facility; an outdoor theatre; a commercial kitchen; a visitor’s center, places for worship, study, and fellowship; a workshop with tools; an art gallery; walking trails; Wi-Fi; a bed-and-breakfast for use by mission visits; a chicken operation; dairy goats; rabbits; bee hives; and an aquaponics system. A dry-pond detention basin for storm water runoff will serve as a dog park during dry spells. There will also be a columbarium surrounded by a memorial garden, as many chronically homeless people (who are often single, older adults) have suffered catastrophic disconnects from their families and request that Mobile Loaves & Fishes assume the role of end-of-life caregivers.
If this sounds remarkably ambitious, it is. The site is a whirl of activity, with heavy equipment, construction cranes, piles of building materials and bustling work crews transforming the formerly vacant acreage into a unique living space designed especially to serve the needs of a population unaccustomed to such largesse. Even more remarkable is the fact that 90 percent of the material and labor is donated. A rancher clearing his land has had 24 mature pecan trees dug up, transported and replanted on the Village site. Church groups, service organizations, Boy Scouts (including numerous Eagle Scout aspirants), Girl Scouts, elementary school classes, business groups, University of Texas architecture students and a small army of individuals have contributed time, effort and dollars to the project. One example of the widespread community support is the case of Alamo Drafthouse, an Austin-based national cinema franchise. The company is completely underwriting the construction of a state-of-the-art outdoor movie theatre for Community First! and its local employees regularly volunteer for Mobile Loaves & Fishes initiatives. Earlier this year, 150 of them helped plant tomatoes in the garden area.
While much of the Community First! Village remains under construction, the Genesis Gardens are already in place and provide a calmer and more verdant substructure to the surrounding commotion. Currently, the gardens consist of three acres of organic vegetable production, 200 fruit and nut trees, and a geodesic dome/greenhouse growing citrus and avocados that is also used to start seeds for the vegetable beds. Rainwater collection exists on some structures, with more planned as buildings are completed. Perhaps the reason the gardens are more established than other aspects of the Village is because gardening has been an important and active component of the Mobile Loaves & Fishes mission since 2009. That’s when gardener Steven Hebbard partnered with Alan Graham and Mobile Loaves & Fishes to provide Austin’s homeless with access to fresh food.
Hebbard, who has a Divinity degree and who lists his job title as “Good Soil Developer,” had already started The Karpophoreo Project, his own community garden-based outreach program. Karpophoreo is a Greek term meaning “to be fruitful.” After joining with Mobile Loaves & Fishes, Hebbard changed the name to Genesis Gardens because so many people had difficulty pronouncing the Greek word. By whatever name, the mission of the project remains the same, and that is not just to create food, but to build relationships based upon that food. The project started out by making garden plots all over Austin wherever space could be found: in homeowners’ yards, in empty lots and on the property of various churches. Eventually it grew to 25 different gardens, but all those are being consolidated into the acreage devoted to Genesis Gardens at Community First! Village. Being able to have a single location for the gardening effort contributes to a sense of “rootedness” that CVS hopes to inspire for its inhabitants.
Close to 100 volunteers per week, a significant number of whom come from Austin’s homeless (or formerly homeless) population, tend the gardens and orchards, which grow everything from apples to zucchini. They amend soil, plant, weed, water, prune, compost, manage pests and diseases, and harvest the crops. They are trained to cook, can or pickle what they grow (one program teaches them to use slow cookers). And, of course, they eat. After awhile, some begin to take responsibility for various tasks and take ownership of their part in the overall effort. Because everything is grown organically, they learn about sustainable agriculture. Those who grow the food offer it to those who don’t, going door-to-door to Community First! residents and thereby starting dialogues and creating relationships where none existed before.
“A lot of social interaction occurs around food,” said Heidi Sloan. “You might be offering someone a fresh tomato, but that gesture opens up an opportunity to ask about how a doctor visit went or whether a sick pet is better. It’s really about communicating on a normal basis. A lot of chronically homeless people don’t have that in their lives.” Sloan recounts the story of one formerly homeless individual who has discovered (or perhaps re-discovered) talents through the gardening program and having found a safe place to live. “He is one of the best homemakers I’ve ever known. His place is so welcoming and he is always making something good to eat. He makes terrific tomatillo sauce!”
To hear Sloan tell it, her involvement with Genesis Gardens seemed almost destined to happen. A graduate of Baylor University, she is a country girl who grew up gardening with her family, riding horses and taking care of livestock. While at Baylor, she volunteered at the World Hunger Relief Farm near Waco, an experience that certainly helped prepare her for her current “dream job.” After obtaining her degree, she moved to Austin and started looking for some farmland so that she could continue her passion for gardening and animals. She found some acreage and tried to put an offer on it, only to find that someone else had purchased it that same day. That evening, she attended a party and while there, she met Steven Hebbard. The two began talking, discovered their common interest in gardening, and she told him about her failed attempt to buy some farmland. He asked her where the property was located and shocked her by saying that he worked with the organization that bought it, Mobile Loaves & Fishes. Hebbard himself had just learned about the property and was already making plans for developing the farm/garden aspect of it. It was the same property where Community First! Village is now located and where Sloan now directs Genesis Gardens. “When I met Heidi and learned that she had already done soil tests on the property, I knew she was a natural fit. I told her about my terrible failure with the animal husbandry side of the program and solicited her help,” said Hebbard. Sloan began volunteering for the group and eventually was hired as a fulltime employee. “It’s funny how things work out,” she said. “Being involved in this amazing community is so much better than anything I could have dreamed of if I had gotten the land for myself.”
The word genesis means an origin, a creation or a beginning. Genesis Gardens embodies that concept for all involved — the Mobile Loaves & Fishes employees, the volunteers who work with them and the homeless whom the gardens most directly benefit. Genesis Gardens is a crucial part of the underlying theme of Community First! Village, which is the creation of a community where residents feel safe and where they feel empowered to earn a dignified income. The first group of 40 chronically homeless took up residence there this summer. For them and for all those who will call the Village home in the near future, it may seem as though they are living in their own little Garden of Eden.