Helping homeless San Diegans one plant at a time

Posted on Sep 1, 2016
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Can a plant solve San Diego's homelessness problem? No, but it might help.

Can a plant solve San Diego’s homelessness problem? No, but it might help.

Several months ago at a Citizens Coordinate for Century 3 (C3) panel discussion on the homelessness problem in San Diego, one of the panel members really energized me.

Her name is Amy Gonyeau, and she is Chief Operating Officer with the Alpha Project. For those who aren’t familiar with it (like me I’m embarrassed to say), Alpha Project is a nonprofit human services organization that serves over 4,000 homeless men, women, and children each day with a variety of services like affordable housing, residential substance abuse treatment, transportation, mental health counseling, employment training, and also emergency services.

Good Earth Plant horticultural technicians Carlos and Marco install plants at the Alpha Project in San Diego serving homeless..

Good Earth Plant horticultural technicians Celso and Cleto install plants at the Alpha Project.

I started my career in the plant industry with a flower kiosk on the corner of 6th and B streets in downtown San Diego. And I’ve seen plenty of homeless people over the years, who hasn’t? But I haven’t given it a lot of thought. Recently I’ve noticed the increased attention to the problem and I’m one of those people now paying much more attention, and wondering what I might be able to do to help.

So for a start, I offered to supply free plants and plantscaping services to beautify the Alpha Square’s entry, common areas and staff offices. My offer was enthusiastically accepted, and so I took a crew of our best plant technicians and beautiful plants over to Alpha Square and got to work.

Good Earth Plant Company recently provided plantscaping services to the Alpha Project in public spaces like its lobby and its offices.

Good Earth Plant Company recently provided plantscaping services to the Alpha Project in public spaces like its lobby and its offices.

Residents living at the Alpha Square saw what we were doing and they seemed excited about it. This encouraged me to take the next step. Why not offer each of the residents a plant for their living space? Staff members liked this idea, and asked its 200-plus residents who might be interested. Half said they wanted to participate. This is a huge number considering the challenges many of them face daily!

We chose orchids, because as plants go they are easy to care for. Most people are surprised by this. They tolerate not being watered regularly and are happy in nearly any light. This is why we use them so often in office plantscaping. We recycle our office plants on a regular basis and we are often left with lots of plants that need to find new homes.

Good Earth Plant Company orchids ready for distribution to Alpha Project residents. homeless

Good Earth Plant Company orchids ready for distribution to Alpha Project residents.

We took ten dozen orchids back to the Alpha Project and set up in their lunchroom to begin distribution. The residents flocked into the lunchroom, eager to receive their plants. I haven’t ever interacted with homeless folks very often and for a rookie, I admit it was a little hard for me to personally relate to a lot of the residents.

One woman approached me and said she knew me for 30 years. I didn’t recognize her. It turns out when she was 17 years old, “Julie” once worked at the sandwich shop near my original downtown kiosk and I bought lunch there from her all the time. Once I heard her voice and really looked at her, I remembered her. Her jet black hair was now gray. What a dose of reality. Suddenly for me, the average San Diegan, the interaction turned these “other people” into someone I knew.

Happy recipients pick up their orchids for their residences at the Alpha Project.

Happy recipients pick up their orchids for their residences at the Alpha Project.

Now I’m more motivated than ever to see what Good Earth Plant Company can do in its small way to use plants, gardening, and nature to improve the lives of San Diego’s homeless population. We know how plants improve the health and wellbeing of people in general ways. Using horticultural therapy to teach people to care for a living thing has real benefits that can be measured. Alpha Square has a fantastic rooftop space, and I’d love to get my hands on it and see how we can use it for a garden.

Alpha Project residents show off their new orchids from Good Earth Plant Company.

Alpha Project residents show off their new orchids from Good Earth Plant Company.

I’ve gotten a real education about some of the needs in our community that can be met with something as simple as plants. Good Earth Plant Company is excited about developing a new program to donate our recycled plants to nonprofits. As we are just in the planning stages, we’ll have more details about this soon.

If something as simple as a plant can help address homelessness, what will a little bigger effort achieve?

In the meantime, if I see a homeless person on the street with an orchid or another plant in their shopping cart, it probably came from us. And maybe, just maybe, nurturing that plant will help revive their memories of a time they worked in a garden as a child or lived in a home with a yard, and provide a small spark toward seeking the help and support they need. Not a bad dream…