Spend a significant amount of time in Seattle’s public spaces, as I did last summer, and you cannot avoid observing the impact of the housing emergency. Over the months that I spent researching community gardening, I learned about the neighborly camaraderie P-Patches can facilitate. I also witnessed, however, some unfortunate limitations that prevent people from participating, specifically exclusion based on housing status.
Even as gardeners celebrate the inclusive nature of keeping the space open to the public, most are not equally accepting of unhoused individuals, who they see as unwanted interlopers. One gardener I spoke with described how her peers regret that the garden’s design makes the space inviting for those experiencing homelessness to sit and/or sleep.Many others I talked to blamed the homeless people for theft from their plots.
But, homelessness is a huge systemic problem; what can we expect from a small city program like P-Patch? I would argue that the program has already set ambitious goals for its impact, and addressing homelessness would only be a natural continuation.
The mission statement of the P-Patch Community Gardening Program is “to build communities through gardening and to incorporate community gardens into the fabric of neighborhoods by breaking down urban isolation, providing restorative places and maximizing participation from all residents regardless of age, income, ability, gender or ethnicity.” What if P-Patch were to add “housing status” to this list? What if, instead of trying to avoid each other, housed and unhoused Seattleites became gardening peers?
Some might say that the P-Patch Program is already doing its share to help the unhoused population. The program has long encouraged each site to maintain a dedicated “giving garden.” In 2014, the city’s 39 giving gardens donated 27 tons of food to local food banks, meal programs and shelters that unhoused individuals so greatly depend on.
While giving garden donations clearly makes an impact, the P-Patch Program could be doing more to empower people experiencing homelessness instead of simply providing for them. Programs in Santa Cruz and Atlanta offer inspiration for a Seattle initiative that involves the local homeless population. Santa Cruz is home to the Homeless Garden Project in which participants learn employable skills and receive support (such as regular hot meals) within the “therapeutic” context of growing food on a three-acre farm. The Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless partners with an urban agriculture non-profit called Truly Living Well to operate an entrepreneurial farming and marketing educational course. After completion, participants are not only prepared to operate their own small urban farm, but are certified to teach the material to others.
If P-Patch were to pilot a similar initiative, it could do so in partnership with a homeless-services nonprofit that would facilitate the inclusion of unhoused folks in an existing P-Patch. The first step would be outreach to homeless people to gauge interest and receive input. By working with unhoused folks as partners in developing the programming and defining its goals, this initiative would empower those experiencing homelessness. Benefits would also come from learning new skills, socializing with other gardeners (both housed and unhoused) and providing themselves with fresh food.
As a program focused on inclusion and representation, P-Patch is already creating diverse communities. However, the program could do better to help humanize people who are most often looked down upon and avoided. Whereas the current system of giving gardens promotes charity for those less fortunate, P-Patch could increase its social impact through empowerment and inclusion of unhoused individuals.
If you have enjoyed spending time in your neighborhood P-Patch, consider calling 206.684.0464 or emailing the P-Patch Program (firstname.lastname@example.org) to voice your support for allowing our unhoused neighbors to more fully benefit from these uniquely Seattle public spaces.
Allison Perry was born in Seattle and graduated from Stanford University in June with a bachelors in anthropology.
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