I’ve posted about growing tomatoes and hoping toadopt a baby girl from Honduras, and not adopting a baby girl from Honduras. I’ve posted Rebeka’s story from Rwanda to Austin and back again, about the unfurling of her feet and her personality. Lately I’ve encountered some amazing people, and I thought I’d share some of their stories here.
When I volunteered to drive on a field trip for Nate’s class, I was unclear what exactly we’d be doing, something about geometry and building a gazebo. We drove way out past the airport, curled around the east side of town, and turned on Hog Eye Road. Where were we going again? Something about Mobile Loaves and Fishes, but wasn’t that the organization that drove trucks around town, giving food and clothing to the homeless? We turned at the entrance, where little wooden birdhouses were attached to the fence, then drove down a dusty driveway and parked in some grass.
It was here that we met Steven Hebbard, Coordinator of Genesis Gardens.
Steven explained that the land we were standing on would someday be filled with small homes, a village, really. The Mobile Loaves and Fishes web site says Community First! will be “a 27 acre master-planned community that will provide affordable, sustainable housing and a supportive community for the disabled, chronically homeless in Central Texas.” The space is designed for 100-200 people to form community, and 80% of them will come from the street.
Which sounds great, but big. I couldn’t quite get my head or my heart around something like that. How? When? What if . . . I needed something smaller, a part of the story that could be wrapped within the designated 32 pages of a picture book, something I could chew on. Like a garden, and the garden is Steven’s specialty.
Five years ago Steven found himself with a community garden plot in a notoriously bad part of town. He rented a house a few blocks down, where he lived with a few other guys, and determined to love the land, his neighbors, and God. He says, “The way I like to think about it, once I got my fingers in the soil, my arms were pulled in, and then there was nothing for it but let the rest of my life follow in after.”
For two years, at least once a day, he harvested fruits and vegetables from his garden. As he walked the two blocks home, he’d stop and ask his neighbors if they wanted some squash or a melon. Slowly but surely, he built community with the people around him. He realized that all this growing he’d been doing wasn’t just about fruit and vegetables. It was about homemaking, which turned into village-making when he started working with the Genesis Gardens in the Community First! project.
Steven believes that working and respecting the land together builds the kind of community that lasts over time. The work and the respect help drive out weeds, and weather storms. So here we were, off Hog Eye Road, hearing Steven’s vision. I’d never heard the term “chronically homeless” before, but that’s the group they are reaching out to, people who can’t seem to get themselves off the street. Who have formed a community that has grown in some pretty rocky soil.
When someone is tough enough to endure poverty, lack of shelter, lack of food, and lack of respect, all while dealing with their troubled pasts, whether loss of job or family, addiction or abuse, they have to grow a pretty tough community to get by. Like a cedar tree, they do what they can to survive. What would make them want to step away from this street community that they’ve worked so hard to cultivate?
How about some squash? Some chickens? Rabbits? Okay, how about squatting side- by-side, digging in the dirt, tending soil together. How about working all morning with a volunteer, sweating together, and then feasting together on food grown in the garden, cooked over an open fire. Steven explains that they “host the only slow food meal in the City of Austin where the hosts are homeless and the guests are housed.” Every Saturday they serve up delicious cowboy coffee and dutch-oven breakfast tacos after a morning of volunteers and homeless working together in the garden. It’s hard to tell who is who when you’re both sweaty and dirty and tired and hungry.
Maybe living and working with dignity in an environment that isn’t just functional, but beautiful, would draw the homeless out of their old, destructive communities and into a healthier one. Community First! is all about building a creative space in which to live in healthy community. Chicken laying boxes are made from old drawers that are painted and tiled.
Someone took extra time to decorate the frames around the windows of the rabbit shed with reclaimed wood, and paint stripes on the roosts in the chicken yard.
There is art out here, on Hog Eye Road, just as necessary to the human soul as food and shelter are to the body.
There are trellises made from old bamboo, and benches made from beautiful reclaimed wood, reminders that lives can be reclaimed, too, with a little help.
Steven walked us through a grassy meadow, past some scrubby cedar, and talked to our freshman kids about the cotton farms that once existed on that same land. How the land got overused, and terrible dry years came and blew away all the good soil that was left, and the rural people left their land to move to big cities. They were displaced. In a way, they became homeless. He talked about how the land fought back, with tumbleweeds, then short prairie grasses, cactus and foxtails, then shrubs, post oak and ash juniper.
The plants struggled to survive, doing what it took to hold on to water and grow roots. Today, the land we were standing on had nearly twice the percent of organic matter as the best organic farm in Austin, and now, the homeless are returning. The land has been cleared, it’s being cared for, and hope is in the air.
Steven challenged our kids to use their geometry skills to come up with a gazebo that didn’t just provide cover, but could serve other functions as well. Perhaps they could design a roof that would channel rainwater to a collection barrel. Near the gazebo site are terraced gardens that will catch and hold water to combat drought conditions.
Steven opened our minds and stretched our creativity to think big, dream big, and then get down to work to make it happen. Next week, I’m going to volunteer in the garden, harvest a few vegetables, meet a few new friends. Who knew I’d find the beginnings of Eden, out on Hog Eye Road?