In Good Hands  

How an Organic Farm Has Transformed Our Community for Over 30 Years

By David Dennis
January 3, 2024
An attendant of the Santa Cruz Homeless Garden Project holds a large bundle of swiss chard while smiling

In this exclusive interview, David Dennis sits down with Darrie Ganzhorn, the executive director of the Homeless Garden Project. This organization has been tirelessly addressing misconceptions about homelessness and providing transformative opportunities for over 30 years. Join us as we explore their history, mission, and the remarkable journey of their trainees.

DD: Darrie, thank you for taking the time to chat with us. The Homeless Garden Project has been instrumental in helping individuals experiencing homelessness get back on their feet for more than three decades. You’ve been part of this journey almost from the beginning, serving as the executive director for the past 15 years. Drawing from your extensive experience, could you shed light on some common misconceptions people have about homelessness?

Darrie Ganzhorn: Many individuals genuinely care about and want to address the issue of homelessness, but there are often misunderstandings and sweeping generalizations. I frequently encounter a tendency to perceive one person experiencing homelessness as a representative of the entire homeless population, often unfairly assigning blame. When I think about the people we serve, I see individuals who have faced significant challenges and have displayed remarkable humility. They are often more generous than many people I know, always willing to help their friends and peers. I witness their tremendous courage and resilience, as they’ve endured substantial losses but continue to hold onto hope, striving to rebuild their lives.

We hold weekly circle meetings, which bring together everyone involved in the Project’s job training and transitional employment program, including staff and volunteers. In these meetings, I’ve had the privilege of hearing the wisdom shared by our trainees. Our crew members are deeply committed to their work, demonstrating dedication and pride in their tasks. Many of them have experienced neglect or trauma due to their homelessness, leading to profound emotional scars. One trainee, who had battled addiction for years, shared his journey to sobriety with me, describing how he felt “naked” without his addiction. Joining the farm community was an opportunity for him to learn how to navigate public life and regain his sense of self. The farm provides a safe space for this vital transition, focusing on fostering a sense of acceptance and belonging.

DD: Could you provide an overview of the Homeless Garden Project’s history and mission?

Darrie: Certainly, our mission is encapsulated in the phrase, “In the soil of our urban farm and garden, people find the tools they need to build a home in the world.” Our vision statement emphasizes our aspiration for a thriving, inclusive community, workforce, and local food system. We deeply value the potential for personal growth and renewal in all individuals, the joy derived from cultivating and sharing healthy food, and the well-being that flourishes within vibrant social and natural ecosystems.

As for our history, the foundation was laid before my tenure and has been passed down through oral history. Paul Lee, a visionary and founder, initiated the Project in 1990. His involvement in addressing homelessness issues began when several individuals in our county initiated a hunger strike due to the lack of shelter for people experiencing homelessness. In response, Paul and a group of friends, particularly a collection of ministers, took action. Paul, who had previously been a professor of Philosophy and Theology at UC Santa Cruz, collaborated with his friends to create the Citizens Committee for the Homeless and established the first homeless shelter in Santa Cruz County.

As they spent nights at the shelter, Paul noticed the intense, raw energy that enveloped the shelter in the mornings. He likened it to the streets of New York City upon awakening. With his love for gardening and involvement in the founding of the CASFS program at UCSC, Paul envisioned the concept of a garden for those experiencing homelessness, a place offering serenity and beauty. A friend who owned an herb nursery in the San Luis Obispo area offered to provide some plants, setting the project in motion.

Paul eventually secured a 3-acre plot of land, mainly unused but partially designated for community gardens, across from Lighthouse Field. Lynne Cooper (formerly Basehore) reached out to Paul and requested him to plant a tree for Arbor Day, leading to her active involvement in the Homeless Garden Project’s foundation. Lynne, a visionary leader, spearheaded the establishment of the framework on the site, designed programming, assembled the staff, and introduced circle meetings for participants. Her leadership was instrumental in the Project’s early years, as she oversaw trainees’ work on the farm and sales at the farmer’s market until 1995. We’ve since continued to thrive, serving as a model for service providers, city leaders, and individuals across the country interested in replicating our efforts. We’re even featured in an exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, titled “Our Places: Connecting People and Nature.”

DD: Is Paul still involved with the project?

Darrie: I regret to inform you that we lost Paul last year.

DD: I’m sorry to hear that. How old was he?

Darrie: Paul was 91 at the time of his passing.

DD: Did he remain in Santa Cruz, and was he actively engaged with the farm?

Darrie: Paul stayed connected to the Project throughout his life. He served on our Board of Directors and continued to contribute as a visionary. He was a maverick who danced to his own tune, a characteristic shared by many visionaries. I consider the idea he had for the Homeless Garden Project to be one of the most potent concepts I’ve encountered in my life. It’s brilliant how this work generates multiple positive impacts.

DD: How did you become involved with the Homeless Garden Project?

Darrie: After having my children, I felt a desire to transition my career towards something that could drive social change. I came across a book by Myles Horton titled “Unearthing Seeds of Fire,” where he stressed the importance of bringing together individuals facing common issues and empowering them to discover their own solutions. His approach was empowering, built on respecting people’s knowledge and wisdom. At the time, I had two young children, aged four and seven, and I first learned about the Homeless Garden Project at the Resource Center for Nonviolence. When I visited the farm, I witnessed a beautiful community working together, and I offered to create a newsletter for the Homeless Garden Project, hoping to increase awareness of the work being done there.

Inspired by Myles Horton’s principles, I wanted to amplify the voices of trainees within the program. So, during a circle meeting, I requested their participation in the newsletter, expecting enthusiasm from many. However, only one person, Bill Tracey, a Vietnam War veteran, expressed interest and contributed a powerful piece titled “A Day in The Life of the Homeless Garden Project.” I also conducted interviews with other individuals to ensure their voices were heard in the newsletter, which was circulated as an insert in the Comic News, reaching 5,000 copies distributed throughout the county. It was a valuable opportunity for me to learn from trainees about their experiences, hopes, and aspirations, providing them with a platform for sharing their stories, which the Project had not offered at the time. Thankfully, they eventually hired me.


Overhead view of greenhouses at the Santa Cruz homeless garden project

DD: Could you elaborate on how the program operates? How do you recruit participants, and what are the eligibility criteria for admission and continued involvement?

Darrie: Our Program Manager and Training and Education Supervisor are primarily responsible for outreach efforts. They engage with various local service providers, promoting our program and its benefits. Word of mouth also plays a significant role, as enthusiastic program participants often share their positive experiences with friends and peers, leading to new recruits.

At times, individuals express interest in our program but might not be immediately ready to join. In such cases, we maintain ongoing communication and support, ensuring they feel ready when the time is right. To formally become part of the program, interested individuals attend an information session, followed by an orientation. Afterward, they have the opportunity to complete a two-week trial hire. During this trial period, we emphasize the importance of punctuality and attendance. If a trial hire participant misses a day or is consistently late, they can return at a later time when they are fully committed.

Upon successful completion of the two-week trial hire, individuals can apply for program admission, which involves submitting an application and participating in an interview. The interview process is not merely a job interview but an evaluation of their eligibility for our program. We seek individuals with a strong desire to use the program as a stepping stone to secure employment and housing. However, we also understand that some participants may face obstacles on their journey. Lastly, we place a significant emphasis on community engagement, looking for individuals who can contribute positively by displaying respect, cooperation, and excellent attendance, as the sense of community is a critical factor in our participants’ success.

DD: How many people does the Homeless Garden Project serve in a year?

Darrie: We have 25 positions, including 22 regular positions that involve 20 hours of work per week, along with three positions designated for trial hires. Participants are compensated at the minimum wage rate of $15.50 for their 20-hour workweek, with additional opportunities for extra hours. A few positions with added responsibilities receive higher pay. We also offer a modest wage increase for individuals who successfully meet their 4-month milestone.

DD: Could you share how many individuals have been served by the Project to date?

Darrie: Over the years, we have impacted approximately 900 people.

DD: What percentage of program graduates find employment or secure housing upon completion?

Darrie: Over the past seven years, we have observed that 93% of our program graduates have found employment, and 84% have secured housing.

DD: It’s remarkable that your participants commit to the program while living in tents or cars. Could you elaborate on the requirements for participants to fulfill during their involvement?

Darrie: Currently, we do not provide housing for our trainees, though many have some form of shelter or are enrolled in residential programs. We do offer referrals and support to help individuals access shelter, but we understand that preferences vary greatly. Providing shelter to our trainees remains one of our long-term objectives, as stable housing can significantly enhance their chances of success during transitional employment. 

Three attendees of the Santa Cruz Homeless Garden Project stand together in front of freshly harvested produce

DD: Can you share one or two success stories from your years with the Homeless Garden Project that you’re particularly proud of?

Darrie: There are so many remarkable individuals I could highlight, but I’ll mention a couple of graduates from a few years ago. One now works in the produce department at New Leaf, where I often see him. Another is employed as a roaster at Cat and Cloud Coffee and resides in Boulder Creek. Additionally, there’s a graduate who has adeptly managed his stability, navigating several transitions after leaving the Project. He’s relocated multiple times and held various jobs but consistently moves closer to his long-term aspirations.

DD: How many employees are part of the Homeless Garden Project, and what are their roles?

Darrie: We have a total of 18 staff members, including administrative personnel and program staff. Our program team consists of a Program Manager and a Training and Education Supervisor, and we also have a part-time licensed clinical social worker overseeing our social work program. On the farm, we employ a Farm Manager, a Crop Production Manager, and a Crop Production Assistant. Additionally, we have a Value-Added Enterprise Manager, a Workshop Assistant, and two retail employees.

DD: What percentage of your current employees are former trainees?

Darrie: At present, approximately 30% of our employees are former trainees, which is a testament to the effectiveness and success of our program.

Garden beds of leafy greens with a red farmstand in the background at the Santa Cruz Homeless Garden Project

DD: Could you share the annual budget of the Homeless Garden Project and its primary sources of funding?

Darrie: Our annual budget hovers around $1.5 million. The majority of our funding, roughly 75%, comes from individual donations, while government funding typically accounts for less than 5% in a regular year. Approximately 25% of our budget is generated through our enterprises. The bulk of this revenue is derived from sales of value-added products. These enterprises are crucial sources of income, and we aim to increase their contribution as we continue to grow.

DD: Can you provide more details about these enterprises?

Darrie: We have two main enterprises: the farm enterprise and the value-added enterprise. The farm, located on the lower west side at the end of Delaware Ave., is where we cultivate all our crops, which are utilized to provide lunches for staff, trainees, and volunteers. Through the farm enterprise, we offer Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares to the community. Members of our CSA program receive a box of produce and flowers every Friday, typically from mid-May to mid-November. We also operate the Feed Two Birds program, which combines aspects of both enterprise and donation models. In this program, community members contribute funds to support both our transitional employment program and provide fresh, organic produce to individuals facing food insecurity. The revenue from this program is pooled and directed towards distributing shares to our neighbors who lack access to sufficient food. Throughout the harvest season, we distributed 60 shares weekly to food-insecure individuals through 15 different nonprofit partners.

DD: Tell me more about the farm on the west side. Are you purchasing that? I understand that you raised money for a larger farm in Pogonip? What happened with that?

Darrie: So, in 1993 the City of Santa Cruz had purchased Pogonip, had put together a task force and was asking the community how they’d like to see it used. We told the city we were interested in having a farm at Pogonip. Then in 1998, after a lot of collaboration and planning,  we were included in the Pogonip Master Plan. The City Council voted to include the Homeless Garden Project to have a farm in the Lower Meadow, and there were many steps between 1993 and 1998. Among other steps, we created a site plan and made an operations and management plan.

And then in around 2015, with a sense of what it would cost to build a farm and support structures at Pogonip, conducted a feasibility study to see if we could raise the money to build the farm there. When it was  determined that we could, we started the campaign. We set a goal, originally of $2.65 million, and then we updated it to $3.5 million. As the campaign grew, we became more clear about what was going to be happening there. We secured a 20-year lease with three five-year renewable terms. We did more site plans and got a design permit. But, in 2019, we put the project on hold until soil testing could be completed to understand potential impacts of skeet shooting that went on there over 100 years ago. The contamination was above industrial and residential screening levels. And so, the whole project was put on hold. 

As you can imagine, this was very difficult news for our organization. We can’t operate our program without land, and we know that securing a permanent site was a priority. Once we had a chance to regroup, we began to explore three potential sites: the Pogonip Lower Meadow, a site in south county that the County of Santa Cruz recently purchased and remaining on our current site. We’ve signed an agreement to purchase four acres of our beloved Natural Bridges Farm site. We’re thrilled by this progress, but we still have work to do, because the deal isn’t final until we’ve secured entitlements.  During this time, we’ve continued to operate and even grow our programs. And we’re extremely grateful that the community has continued to value and support our work.

DD: Thank you for talking with me. Is there anything else you wanted me to make sure people know?

Darrie: This year, our trainees are really going strong in the workshop. So, we have some beautiful, dried flower wreaths and a  lot to offer to the community – especially for holiday shopping. We sell online at, and we have two brick and mortar stores in the county – 222 Esplanade Avenue in Capitola Village and 1338 Pacific Avenue in Downtown Santa Cruz next to the Palomar Restaurant. Our trainees make and package all our products in a large workshop downtown, using ingredients from the farm. We have beautiful handmade wreaths, bath and body products, candles, baking mixes, teas – more than 40 products that are all part of our training program. 

This interview underscores the organization’s sustainable social enterprise model, its historical journey and future aspirations. As a beacon of hope, the Homeless Garden Project not only transforms lives but also enriches the community through its artisanal products, emphasizing a message of resilience and empowerment. 

A woman smiles while holding freshly picked beets from the Santa Cruz Homeless Garden Project

Homeless Garden Project

You can learn more about our program and buy CSA shares for next year to feed your friends and family and get beautiful flowers each week at

Homeless Garden Project Logo