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November 30-December 7, 2005

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Temporary Living

15 years after its inception, the Homeless Garden Project is still looking for a place to call home

By Mike Connor

It might seem ironic that, 15 years after its creation, the Homeless Garden Project is still looking for a permanent home, but executive director Dawn Coppin insists there's another, more optimistic way of looking at it.

"That's part of who we are," she says of the Project's roving existence. "We're helping homeless people, and we too are sensitive to the temporary nature of where our facilities are."

Founded in 1990 by the Citizens' Committee for the Homeless, the Homeless Garden Project began on a small community garden along Pelton Street. Initially, Project participants weren't paid—their labors yielded valuable work experience and plenty of produce from the garden. But in 1992 the Project moved to an adjacent (and much larger) city-owned lot, and had grown enough to provide 10 people with paid training positions. Participants worked the land, patiently coaxing enough organic produce to sell at the nearby Farmer's Market and to community members who subscribed to the farm's weekly offerings.

In 1994, the Project created the Women's Organic Flower Enterprise, which continues to sell flowers, handmade wreaths, candles and cards at the old Lighthouse Liquor store at Depot Park and during every holiday season downtown. Together, the two programs earn enough money to cover about 23 percent of the Project's expenses, which includes paychecks, payroll taxes and workers' compensation for the participants—just like any other business. Coppin says community donations account for about 57 percent of the budget, and the rest comes from grants and in-kind donations.

Today the majority of the farming is done by a 14-member crew on an empty plot of land owned by Barry Swenson on the West Side.

"We've been the recipients of Barry Swenson's generosity for several years now," says Coppin. "It has been great, but it's not a permanent place."

The search for a permanent site has already begun. But in the meantime, the focus of the Project is, as it's always been, on the participants. Coppin says that, over the last 15 years, one of the most important lessons they've learned is that the longer participants work at the Project, the more likely they are to be successful in the long term. So instead of aiming to provide work experience for the maximum number of people in the shortest amount of time, the Project focuses its attention on ways to keep participants for up to three years.

To that end, the Project is looking to open an edible landscape nursery in 2006. Coppin says the new program will give the crew an opportunity to learn specialized nursery skills raising organic apple trees and peach vines that, being locally grown, will be acclimatized to the area. But Coppin also hopes the new program will do well in terms of generating revenue and attracting grants—which may in turn help the Homeless Garden Project to find its home.

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