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Interview: Harry Rhodes on how learning to farm can rebuild the lives of homeless people

,    /   Sep 21st, 2010Education, Food, Interviews

Harry Rhodes (left) and Orrin Williams reimagine American farming

Harry Rhodes helps homeless and low-income individuals grow roots—both figuratively and literally. As the executive director of Growing Home, he works with people who are seeking to leave behind lives of homelessness, joblessness, and addiction.

Growing Home provides training in the cultivation and marketing of organic produce on small farms in Marseilles, Illinois and Chicago’s South Side—a neighborhood that has been labeled a “food desert.” Rhodes talked about the transformative power of farming and the remarkable inner strength he has discovered among many of his clients.

Dowser: How did Growing Home get started?
Rhodes: The story goes back to Les Brown, a man who helped found The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless back in 1980. Les saw that the main barrier to progress for the homeless was job skills. Having grown up on a farm, he knew how farming could transform lives, so in 1992 he created Growing Home.

It must have been tough to get farmland in the middle of the city.
Yes, but luckily, Les knew a lot about federal laws, and one of them, the McKinney Act, stipulates that federal surplus property is supposed to be given to organizations that work with the homeless.  In the early ‘90s there was land available just south of Navy Pier. The city was about to do a big development there, but Les put in a bid and got it.

How did you get your first workers?
In 2002, we recruited people from the House of Daniel shelter and transported them four days a week out to the farm.  That was my first year on the job, and I was the only staff person.

Was there pressure to grow quickly so you could get more funding?
Yeah. When we started, we worked with nine people and the funders said, ‘You have to work with a lot more people than that.’  We said we would grow slowly and gradually but it’s important to have a quality program.

So you went for quality over quantity—depth over breadth?
That’s right. Slowly, when people saw that it was succeeding and changing lives, funders became more interested and the program grew little by little.  Now we work with about 20 trainees per year.

Let’s talk about the curriculum. You not only provide work experience, but you also teach work and life skills, right?
Right. The main components of the curriculum are horticulture, soil science, marketing, customer relations, health and nutrition, and life skills, including financial skills and budgeting.

What impact does this have on the trainees? Can you give an example?
Sure. One of trainees, Tyra Rogers, was in prison. When he got out, he set a goal that after six months he was either going to get a job or go back to dealing drugs, because he needed to do something to survive.  He found us after five months and has been succeeding ever since.  In fact, after graduating from the program he applied for a job with us and now works as our Urban Farm Assistant.

What are your biggest struggles?
One of the big problems is most of the people come to us from parts of the city that have very few job opportunities. Also, many of them have criminal backgrounds, so few people will hire them.  They have to commute to the suburbs for jobs that don’t pay well.

What are your ideas for countering that?
The only way to change things is to create more local jobs through economic development. We are revisiting our mission to include economic development.

What type of economic development?
One of our latest projects, for example, is to help create an urban agriculture district in the South Side neighborhood of Englewood. We want to use food to transform the community. The vision is for urban farms to lead to farmers’ markets, bakeries and restaurants. It will be community development, not just job training. Food harvested at Growing Home’s certified organic Wood Street Urban Farm is sold at places in the South Side, including Englewood, that have no access to healthy food.

In 2009, Chicago’s Fresh Taste Initiative chose Growing Home to lead a two-year strategic planning process for an urban agriculture district in Englewood.  Thus far the main strategies chosen are: develop a large number of urban farms in Englewood, develop farmer training programs, initiate business development programs related to urban agriculture and food.

Learn More:

Before Growing Home, what did you do?
I have been working in nonprofits for the past 20 years or so.  I lived in Israel for 16 years and started some nonprofits that worked with Jewish-Arab co-existence.

Wow—I guess you’re used to challenges. Did Growing Home feel like a major departure from your past work?
There’s actually a lot of overlap in terms of learning how to start a nonprofit, fundraise and work with diverse communities.

What were your first impressions of Growing Home?
The thing that really hit me was seeing people who had been homeless getting up at 5 a.m. every day to drive an hour and a half and work for six hours.  They were excited. They wanted to learn something new and they were really dedicated to changing their lives.

One of the case managers at House of Daniel said he was shocked and never thought this homeless guy, who he had never seen take any initiative, would get up every day and work so hard consistently.

What are your impressions of the people helped by Growing Home?
They have inner strength that has helped them survive, whether it is because of growing up on the streets or getting involved in drugs.  They have not had opportunities and yet somehow managed to get by and realized they needed to do something else. I don’t know if I could do what these people do.

This interview was edited and condensed.

Photo: Erika Dufour

2 Responses

  1. Chelsea Lutz says:

    I am interested in starting a farm in Vermont for the homeless as our homeless community is growing at a rapid scale. Can you point me in the right direction as to how to get this started? Thank you for your time and commitment to others. Sincerely, Chelsea