Grass-roots horticulture is afoot in Dorchester Park, a rectangle of greenery near Interstate 25 and Nevada Avenue.
The park has a large homeless contingent, with transients who congregate at picnic tables under the park awning. It's near the Springs Rescue Mission, and police officers on the Homeless Outreach Team cruise through a couple of times every day, said officer Brett Iverson, one of HOT's original members.
Several groups and residents are passionate about changing the atmosphere. The folks behind Seeds Community Cafe, Pikes Peak Urban Gardens and the Pikes Peak Justice and Peace Commission recently joined forces to take over the long-dormant Dorchester Park Community Garden and turn 34 raised garden beds into fresh food and a way to engage the homeless.
"We hope it raises awareness to sustainability, gardening and healthy food," said Lyn Harwell, executive director of Seeds Community Cafe, a donation-based restaurant downtown. "We hope we can help a few people on the street get their hands in the dirt, understand what that's about and get them off the street, if that's possible."
Harwell said the garden was started about five years ago by Springs Rescue Mission, a nonprofit that serves the homeless and needy.
"Gardening is very therapeutic," he said. "We're hard-wired to be gardeners and farmers. When you plant something in the earth and it grows, something changes in you. You start to eat it, and the next thing you want to do is share it with someone else. And when you share with somebody else, you can communicate on a different level. It changes who you are."
The garden faded away in 2011, when Harwell, who had worked at Springs Rescue Mission, left the mission, but interest has reignited, he said.
PPUG, the caretaker of the city-owned Dorchester Park, has an agreement with Seeds Community Cafe to bring in volunteers to work the plot. People, some of whom volunteer at Seeds, sign up for two-hour sessions Tuesday through Thursday. In exchange for their labor, they receive a free meal at the restaurant. PPUG provides the compost, seeds and other necessities.
Right now, 25 percent of the garden's eventual harvest of kale, arugula, squash, swiss chard, eggplant, onions, garlic and herbs will go to Seeds. The rest will go to people in the community who need it, Harwell said.
"We wanted to work with folks in poverty - give them a plot and teach them how to grow it," he said. "Pikes Peak Urban Gardens is doing that at other spots in town. The other part is homeless outreach. When you come and help a garden, you can harvest it and take some home with you."
To get the homeless involved, Harwell said he'll approach them in the park in early June and start spreading the word that they can volunteer.
"We like to engage the homeless. It becomes their garden also," he said. "There's ownership, and they protect it at night. A lot of folks said people would jump the fence and rip it up, but no, they don't. They protect it. They respect it."
The community garden is also the first project of Sunrise Farm, a program by PPJPC, a local organization focused on nonviolence, sustainable living and social and economic justice. PPJPC has advocated for sustainable farming for homeless and mentally ill people for two years, said Steven Saint-Thomas, associate director at PPJPC and project manager of Sunrise Farm.
It's modeled after the care farm idea that has been popular in Europe for 20 years, Saint-Thomas said, and provides a farming environment for those who are in trouble or crisis.