May 16th, 2011
03:45 PM ET
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"We eat what we get. It’s not like I can say ‘I’m going to eat something healthy,'" says Joel, a resident of a downtown Atlanta shelter.

For Joel, and other homeless people like him, having a meal does not mean choosing between an organic pear and gorgonzola salad or locally-grown arugula with artisanal cheese. Instead, food options boil down to one thing: sustenance. The food is received mostly by donation, which means it's often cheap, non-perishable, and generally less than healthy.

However, one Atlanta nonprofit, the Atlanta Mission, has recently taken the term “community garden” to a new level by adapting a vacant lot in the downtown area and transforming it into a garden filled with raised vegetable beds. It's tended daily by the very men who inhabit the shelter and whose bounty will benefit the shelter’s kitchen.

This plot is manned by the most unassuming and unlikely gardeners. Ty, a former gang member with tattoos on his face, and Joel, a recovering addict, spend half their day pulling weeds, watering and pruning the multiple-bed garden in hopes that they’ll be able to harvest a successful bounty of fresh produce by the end of the season.

These men aren’t strangers to the canned vegetables and processed starches that fill the shelves of the shelter’s kitchen, so they recognize the importance of the garden. “We get what we get,” Joel said. “This garden’s going to take a lot of the slack of eating healthy.”

Both men were a part of the garden from the groundbreaking on March 19, 2011, and both have seen the seeds that were sown grow into plants. Ty smiles as he said, “I just loved seeing it come from a seed. They’re our babies. I planted one and named it Zeus.”

For these men, the garden and the act of gardening mean a variety of things beyond the food itself.

“It’s not just about eating a tomato sandwich, but about doing something and seeing an end result. It’s just a real privilege to do something that feels like I’m a part of something,” Joel mentioned.

“I can just think while I’m out here. I look back at my life and think about where I want to go,” says Ty.

With reactions like these, it seems the garden’s aim has hit its mark, providing a space to think and belong for the men of the Atlanta Mission.

The project was dreamt up and put together by the Atlanta Mission with the help of Skanska, a project and construction development group, after a vacant lot between the two groups’ buildings sat overrun by weeds and used as a homeless camp.

“If these guys are growing their own food, it’s still ending homelessness in a way. It’s very easy to find passion in this,” said Atlanta Mission representative Joshua Harrelson.

For both Ty and Joel, a personal mission has blossomed. “I think it wasn’t a mistake that I’m here. There’s a bigger picture and I want to be a part of it. What we’re doing here is what we’re doing with ourselves. Pulling the weeds and putting in good food,” said Joel.

Both men have high hopes for the garden and are pleased with what they’ve done for it and it has done for them so far. In calling it “our own little Garden of Eden,” Ty reminds himself that the bounty that comes from community gardens like this one is fruitful for everyone involved.

For more information on the garden itself and ways to get involved, visit

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Filed under: Food Politics • Gardening • Hunger • Local Food • Urban Gardening

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soundoff (22 Responses)
  1. ourbestselves

    This truly inspires me. Thanks go out to Skanska and others involved to make this project come to fruition – this garden will bring a bountiful harvest on multiple levels.

    May 24, 2011 at 7:20 pm |
  2. Eric Ferrell

    Genesis 1: " 8 Now the LORD God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed." 9 The LORD God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food...."

    Looks like these guys are getting back to something real, primal, and just plain good.

    Great story.

    May 20, 2011 at 10:28 am |
  3. susan Varlamoff

    We at the University of Georgia trained and support this project week by week to empower these men. We are dedicated to making this project succeed.

    May 19, 2011 at 1:52 pm |
  4. @Finedininglover

    Sounds like a great projects – there are similar rooftop gardening projects taking place in New York – Actually did a piece on it last week

    May 18, 2011 at 9:27 am |
  5. osama joe biden

    where can we get seeds for free?

    May 17, 2011 at 4:19 pm |
  6. Dimitri Snowden

    This is awesome and serves as a prime example to other(s) (states) about human responsibility!

    -Dimitri Snowden

    May 17, 2011 at 1:11 pm |
  7. Popeye

    This garden will bring a bountiful harvest on so many levels.

    May 17, 2011 at 12:11 am |
  8. dtboco3

    This is a great idea. Space doesn't allow for that at the shelter in my town, but during the summer we have a big farmers market every weekend and many of the farmers donate some of what they don't sell. It obviously doesn't have all the benefits of this program, but at least they get fresh, healthy food.

    May 16, 2011 at 10:52 pm |
  9. Pam

    I recently attended the Square Foot Gardening Symposium in Columbia, SC and part of our class included two men from the group Homeless Helping Homeless. Their goal is to be self sufficient and to improve their nutrition. One said that with the lack of healthy foods, they are taking supplements for vitamins. We spent time in the community garden in a blighted area. Nearby residents came out on their porches to comment on their plots in the garden. It's something that feeds the body and the soul. SFG Foundation also assists other countries with gardening so they may also be more self sufficient. Their goal is not to send food, but to share knowledge and feed them for a lifetime.

    May 16, 2011 at 9:45 pm |
  10. Kelly Donley, Chicago

    This story brought tears to my eyes! Shortly after learning about the murder of a 22-year-old up-and-coming musician in Inglewood, CA, I came across this story. What a great change of pace! I'm so happy that this piece of land was made available, and that these groups of people were able to capitalize in a way that many others wouldn't. Let God bless the lives of all those involved, and bring decades upon decades of healthy crops, further health, and joy to this at the shelter.

    May 16, 2011 at 9:40 pm |
  11. ENYFarms

    Also being done in East New York Brooklyn (NYC)>

    May 16, 2011 at 8:11 pm |
  12. Cranston

    It would be nice if this project gets these men to start thinking about the future and inspire them with a purpose once again. Some of them might get off the streets and back to being productive members of the community.

    May 16, 2011 at 8:00 pm |
    • Bo

      It sounds like this project already has and these men already are. They are certainly more productive than most people I encounter everyday - gaining for themselves self-reflection, self-respect, and no longer living lives of quiet desperation.

      May 16, 2011 at 8:16 pm |
      • Kelly Donley, Chicago

        I absolutely agree with you Bo.

        May 16, 2011 at 9:42 pm |
      • Aaron

        I also agree with you. All half way houses, homeless shelters, and other areas that help people get back on there feet and help them out should have one of these garden if space alows so they can grow there own food and give them something to do.

        May 16, 2011 at 10:20 pm |
  13. Hippy Gardenter

    The best news I've read in years!

    May 16, 2011 at 7:07 pm |
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