April Wilson works the field near Natural Bridges.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Civic Life

Sowing seeds of hard work & hope: Homeless Garden Project’s delayed move to Pogonip still on the horizon

A long-planned move to the Pogonip hit a snag when the city discovered environmental contamination on the site stemming from skeet shooting that happened almost 100 years ago. Since discovering the contamination, the Homeless Garden Project has worked with soil scientists, state and county regulators and the City of Santa Cruz to define which areas at Pogonip are safe for organic urban farming.

On a 3.5-acre farm near Natural Bridges State Beach, unhoused individuals have tended to the fields as a part of the Homeless Garden Project for almost 30 years. There, people experiencing homelessness have received job training, transition employment and support services — and built a community around organic farming.

“This is the first time in my life that I’ve been able to say, ‘I love my job’,” said Jennifer Hargrove, 41, a crew lead and former trainee in the 12-month program.

Soon, the Homeless Garden Project will be able to serve nearly three times as many individuals: Next year, after years of delay, the nonprofit will likely start constructing its new home within Santa Cruz’s Pogonip Open Space.

Jennifer Hargrove has found new life at the Homeless Garden Project.
Jennifer Hargrove has found new life at the Homeless Garden Project.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The move will allow the Homeless Garden Project to grow more food, plant orchards for the first time and expand volunteer opportunities, in addition to increasing job training capacity from 19 to 50.

The nonprofit intends to serve as a national model for combatting homelessness through farming. Between 2013 and 2020, on average, 97% of graduates secured employment, and 90% of graduates found housing.

“(The program is) like a steppingstone,” said Hargrove, who has lived in Santa Cruz since 1994. “It seems like things just fall into place for people when they apply themselves here.”

Both Hargrove and fellow crew lead Elise Strobel, a 34-year-old who has lived in Santa Cruz since 2018, were unhoused when they started the training program in November 2019. Now, both are housed, and thanks to the Homeless Garden Project’s weekly workshops, which teach skills such as resume and cover letter writing, they feel prepared to find employment after they graduate.

Elise Strobel has worked at Homeless Garden Project since 2019.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“(The program) gives you a really solid foundation where you can then go out into the world and help be a really good part of your community,” said Strobel, who hopes to continue doing nonprofit work after graduating. She said moving the farm to Pogonip will give more individuals an opportunity to transform their lives like she has.

The Homeless Garden Project’s move has been in the works since 1998, when the city’s Pogonip Master Plan envisioned a permanent site for the Homeless Garden Project in the area’s lower meadow, off of Golf Club Drive.

In 2016, the organization decided to launch a $3.5 million campaign to fund the Pogonip Farm, and by 2019, the move seemed to be on the horizon. The nonprofit had a lease from the city, a design permit and had reached its fundraising goal.

But, in mid-2019, the move hit a snag when the city discovered environmental contamination on the site stemming from skeet shooting that happened almost 100 years ago. Pogonip’s over 600 acres have belonged to the City of Santa Cruz only since 1989. Before that, it was part of the Cowell Ranch, and throughout much of the 20th century, it was home to a popular clubhouse, where clubgoers partook in skeet and trap shooting in the same area of the planned farm.

Executive director Darrie Ganzhorn.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Since discovering the contamination, the Homeless Garden Project has worked with soil scientists, state and county regulators and the City of Santa Cruz to define which areas at Pogonip are safe for organic urban farming, according to the nonprofit’s executive director, Darrie Ganzhorn. Though the farm was originally planned for nine acres in Pogonip’s lower meadows, that plan is now up in the air as Ganzhorn said all options are now being considered.

“Our focus remains on our firm commitment to sound science that supports stewardship, conservation and regenerative sustainable practices with a value on a bio-diverse ecosystem and health of the soils and the environment,” Ganzhorn said via email.

The Pogonip Farm will include a 1,460-square-foot administration building, 1,090-square-foot-pole barn/equipment storage building and two 1,440 square-foot-greenhouses. Ganzhorn said she is hopeful they will receive construction approvals from the city in 2022. Once construction begins, Ganzhorn said, it will be a year before the farm’s move to Pogonip, which she hopes will happen in the spring, at the start of a new farm season.