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Re: Community Greening and the Homeless

  • Subject: [cg] Re: Community Greening and the Homeless
  • From: Don Boekelheide <dboekelheide@yahoo.com>
  • Date: Thu, 19 Aug 2004 15:19:14 -0700 (PDT)

Hi, all,

Since the community garden I enjoy working with most
is our Urban Ministries Garden for the homeless in
downtown Charlotte, my first reaction, Jim, is to urge
you to consider setting up a similar program there in
Birmingham. It?s a version of Adam?s lemonade recipe,
I suppose (hey, Adam!).

I?m very glad you raised the issue, in any event. If
any subgroup in our wealthy country can benefit from
having a garden space, it?s the homeless. They really
don?t have access to a place to garden ? heck, they
don?t have a place to live. The pay-offs in terms of
community building, nutrition, giving folks who are
down a foothold for starting on that long road back to
being ?homed? ? a garden helps with all of these.

And I?ve got to preface my overly-long post with the
observation that, however much we like our landscaping
and propriety, and however much we don?t want ?our?
gardeners to be uncomfortable with problems caused by
?those people?, we are talking about human beings
here. We refer to the ?homeless? as the ?neighbors? at
Urban Ministries, in part to break the powerful
negative impact of that word. If you fall to the
bottom of the economic barrel in our culture, you
become an untouchable, worse than a leper. Yet, in my
experience, homeless people are very little different
from you or me ? sometime, they are saints; sometime,
they are sinners; and most of the time they are
somewhere in between. There are good human reasons for
them doing what they do. I have to ask myself ?Now,
why would I sleep in a patch of pampasgrass??, or ?If
I were suffering, what would I do to end the pain
_right now_?? before I start to get a handle on
solving the problems you speak of ? problems we face
here as well.

As we move the Urban Ministries garden to a new spot
this fall (we have to, due to building an upgraded
center), I?m certainly going to take this thread to
the committee doing the landscaping plan! Thanks to
all for contributing. Now, more practically:

Jim writes:

>About 5 years ago, our Senior Center spent 55K to
have a beautiful gazebo and very intensive landscaping
installed. The gazebo provides a relaxing place for
the seniors and in the summertime, concerts are staged
in it. A great asset for the center.<

55 k is beaucouddles for a gazebo! With that kind of
investment ? and the concerts it brings ? you are
right to try to keep it working.

>The Senior Center administration is now considering
removing most of the landscaping because the homeless
are sleeping in various plantings (pampas grass,
etc.). They are continuing to find empty wine and
other alcoholic beverages containers and litter in the
area.  It seems the homeless probably use the gazebo
during the late hours (when the center is closed) and
sleep it off in the bushes.<

I sympathize, but suggest you find out who ?the
homeless? are. Don?t send the cops, go meet ?em
yourself first. There are homeless advocates in
Birmingham who can help. I wouldn?t necessarily go to
Salvation Army first. Do you have ?Room in the Inn?, a
church-based program for giving shelter during the
cold months? In fact, some cops on the beat are great,
they know their folks. Anyway, you may have a stable
and small population sleeping in your invasive plants

Also, it may not be homeless folks, but others. Our
biggest litter problems (and vandalism) at Urban
Ministries are drug dealers, who want to prey on the
homeless, and drunks. Point is, you may be able to
simply ask folks to move elsewhere ? explain your
problem to them. And tell them that, in any case, they
have to clean up the area every morning.

>This is not a fenced in or protective area.<

Until the construction started, ours wasn?t either. A
fence doesn?t really help, in my experience (others
have different experience, like Adam?)

>My solution to them is too heavily trim the shrubs
(where possible) especially raising them off the
ground and to try to provide more lighting in this
area. A fence is not feasible at this time.<

The key is ?line of sight?, the police have a special
name for it and do trainings here. You can actually
get a pretty fair solution without having to really
chop the plants (except the pampas grass, which you
should just whack anyway. Your interlopers must be
extremely drunk, stoned or exhausted; sleeping on
pampasgrass is like sleeping on sawblades.)

>There is a Homeless Shelter within 3 miles of this
area with plenty of space available. I never thought a
landscape architect would have to consider issues such
as this when designing a landscape.<

Oh, yeah, welcome to urban landscaping! That?s all the
police want to talk about at Urban Ministries in terms
of designing the new building?s grounds.

So, what about setting up 1) a community garden
project at the homeless shelter (or at a homeless day
program, which is what Urban Ministries is)? We do our
garden as a cooperative project, run pretty much by
the neighbors with support from staff and me coming by
(from waste reduction/composting) once a week. It's

2) Enlisting locals near the center to help care for
the gazebo and landscaping, perhaps even including
some of the homeless population? We find that if the
community sees something as ?theirs?, they care for
it. What do the folks who live by the gazebo get out
of it?

>Adam Honigman writes:


When you have lemons, it's best to make lemonaide. I
lieu of a gate and nightlock, that would save this

Off the top of my head:

1) I'd call a few local churches, the kind that are
interested in converting drunken sinners and tell them
that there are more than a few likely candidates in
the gazebo during the late evening. I'm sure that
enough visits from earnest, bible thumping visitors
will go far in dissuading nocturnal visits by these

Maybe some Torah, Koran or ?Gita thumpers too? In a
way, I agree ? actually going to check things out at
night is pretty important. But I?d hook up with
friendly ol' street-savvy Pastor White, Rabbi Schwartz
and Imam Ali who work with the homeless first, before
I loose the missionaries.

>2) Cops collect trespassers....perhaps with a few
photos, the cops will stop by and arrest some of these
vagrants for trespassing, or move them to the 

3) Notify the shelter that you have a population here
and suggest that they dispatch a car to collect them.<

This is a great idea ? again, comes up over and over,
get somebody who knows these folks as people. Or, you
could drive ?em yourself. My guess, though, is that
this is a smallish clan of rowdies who show up late,
so they might not want a ride, at least to the

From Dorene Pasekoff:

Jim wrote:

>The Senior Center administration is now considering
removing most of the >landscaping because the
>homeless are sleeping in various plantings (pampas
grass, etc.).

>It amazes me how "folks in charge" are so quick to
just remove landscaping rather than alter it or work
with the community to solve the larger problem that is
giving them THEIR problem. The idea that a landscape
is not a building, but can be altered, rather than
removed to solve problems just escapes these people
unless the points are very carefully laid out.  "Just
getting rid of it" is so much easier! Grrrrrrrrrrrr!<

Right on, sister!!!
>There is a Homeless Shelter within 3 miles of this
area with plenty of space >available.

This should be your first stop -- if they have lots of
space to fill, it behooves them to go out there and
fill it -- otherwise, funding has a nasty tendency to
dry up. Invite them to have lunch with the Senior
Center folks -- the Shelter folks may be able to give
tips on how to discourage the homeless from the gazebo
and into the shelter. Also, the shelter folks might be
able to give a "direct line" phone number to the
Senior Center folks so that when anyone sees homeless
folks on the property, they can call the Shelter and
someone will come out and get them. (This has worked
very successfully for my mother for years -- her
house's architecture matches the church next door, so
folks immediately assume it's a parsonage.   My mother
has 24/7 access to the local Salvation Army post-- if
someone comes to her door, she can promise them a
Salvation Army officer in minutes. Those who genuinely
want help are grateful -- those who don't tend to
disappear and never come back.)<

Right on!

>Next stop should be the local police. Politely (food
from your garden or flowers to brighten up the station
always get you noticed) mention that this is a problem
and you'd really appreciate it if they would stop by
regularly and take those who want help to the Shelter
and arrest the others for public drunkness. Elderly
people being menaced by drunks is bad PR, so play up
the angle.<

Honestly, Doreen ? if we tried to give flowers to our
cops down here, they might haul us in? My guess is
that the cops know the homeless are there already, and
there?s some reason why they?d rather have them there
than elsewhere in town (the mayor?s yard, in front of
the bank?). If I understand you, Jim, the drunks and
the seniors aren?t there at the same time unless
somebody oversleeps in the hedge. It is sort-of a
?joint use? (no pun) arrangement. You can get the
police?s attention by complaining, but you may want to
see where the perps are coming from and where they
might go. The cops can help with this. Is there a
liquor source nearby? Flophouses?

>Since you're finding booze bottles, another stop
might be the local AA chapters. They might be
interested in offering help to these folks. 
While you're talking to everyone, see if the shelter,
police, AA offer community service projects. Getting
the homeless and/or alcoholics to do community service
on the property to clean up the litter and bottles can
go a long way toward getting the problem to disappear
-- especially if the Shelter offers community service.
When the residents go back on the street, they will
NOT be happy with their peers junking up the place so
that they have to clean it every other day. (This is
working great with the adjudicated youth we work with
in the garden -- they are constantly having to tidy up
and clean up after the little project kids and it
makes them realize just how much work this stuff
generates such that they swear off doing such things
themselves AND tell the little project kids to knock
it off themselves.)<

Right on! Same thing at Urban Ministries.

>I never thought a landscape architect would have to
consider issues such as >this when designing a

>Ha! Welcome to community space design. Whether it's
the homeless or drug dealers, one always has to plan
how to attract the people you want to use an open,
relatively public space and how to discourage those
you want to simply move on. It's a multi-pronged
process, but if you combine resources in the community
with "attractive, but nasty to sit on" landscaping,
everything should work out just fine.<

Agreed ? but we are just passing the problem down the
road. The more we can do to help, the better ?
homelessness is truly one of the darkest elements in
American culture.

From Jack Hale

>Sounds like you have a good one going on. These are
actually sort of normal park planning issues, so you
might chat with somebody in your parks department
about how they handle such things. Here are a few
thoughts based on our New England experiences. I
wouldn't be surprised if they required some
"translation" to apply to your more southerly

What do y?all mean, Jack?

>1. Don't light an area unless you want to encourage
people to be there at night. Lighting it enough to
actually discourage people from being there would
probably cost a fortune. The "under bush" areas will
probably actually appear darker with overhead lighting
than without - more contrast.<

Good point. And I won't make any jokes about the
_many_ problems that come from being 'under bush'...
Anyway, you may need to consider outside lighting from
streetlights, etc., too, which can give plenty enough
light to attract people. That is a factor at Urban
Ministries, which has installed inexpensive area
lighting at night (by police request, I think).

>2. Think hard about providing seating, because it's
hard to control who will sit there. The gazebo may be
less desirable to druggies if it is just a shelter
without seats. We are building one that way and are
just asking people to bring their own chairs for
events. Lots of parks now don't provide benches
because people lie down and sleep on them. A bench
with an arm in the middle is also a response to that
problem. I saw another version, a heavy duty park
bench produced in NYC. The seat folds up and locks
when you don't want anyone using it.<

We?ve all seen homeless folks sitting on the ground
?removing benches might not help. I don?t know, this
all makes me very uneasy, sitting in my nice chair in
my house. Nobody else has that sense? We provide some
seating at Urban Ministries, nothing fancy, concrete
benches. I don?t know ? is seating really a problem if
we can meet three conditions ? no human wastes, no
litter (especially drug litter and alcohol bottles),
and not driving away others during the day and evening
through panhandling etc? Jack?s right, there are
solutions, some Draconian ? the City of Santa Cruz,
California, made a vigorous attack on its ?homeless
problem?, I remember, and forbid even sitting on the

I just don?t know?

>3. Be careful when people suggest planting thorny
shrubs to discourage evil- doers. My experience is
that they encourage people to not pick up litter so
the park actually ends up looking worse.<

Agreed, in my experience. This can even be true for
some kinds of mulch and ?typical? hedges.

>4. Pick up litter every day. It's the accumulation
that will really get you 
 5. Provide litter barrels. They won't solve the whole
problem, but they might reduce it.<

We have litter barrels at Urban Ministries, it?s a big
help. We also have regular/irregular garden clean-ups.

>6. The pruning idea may help, but you may end up with
some funny looking bushes. It would have been better
if this situation had been foreseen in the initial
design process.<


>Regarding the job of landscape architects, I've run
into lots of them who wish they didn't have to deal
with the realities of uncontrolled humans
(particularly children) or with rats or with poorly
paid and supervised public employees on lawnmowers or
with over-zealous winter sidewalk salters. The good
ones accept those chunks of reality and learn to work
with them. We have had some good experiences lately
working with some landscape architecture students from
the University of Connecticut exposing them to some of
these issues early in their formative processes and
bringing some of their wild creativity to bear on
problems that stump some of the big name pros in the e
area. I hope you have some similar positive
developments in your area. Good luck.<

Amen, again!

Except don?t see too much road salt down this way.

If you have a place in your city-wide program for a
community gardening project for the homeless, you
might be able to help make ?them? into ?us?, and move
toward a deeper ?and sustainable ? solution to the
challenges. Over the short-term, though, I?d start not
with plants, fences or lights, but with finding out
who these folks are and why they are ending up on your

Best of luck, bet you have outstanding okra about now-

Don B., Charlotte, NC

PS: You can see the Urban Ministries garden at
We?ll be featured in the community garden box in the
gardener-to-gardener section of Organic Gardening
magazine in the Nov-Dec 2004 issue.

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