.Santa Cruz Gives Nonprofits Foster Empowerment and Employment

Digital NEST, the Homeless Garden Project and Santa Cruz Black work to promote equity in Santa Cruz County

For 15 years Brenda Deckman was homeless, unable to find a job despite her efforts and moving in and out of shelters. 

It only took Deckman one year of working at the Homeless Garden Project (HGP) to find a full-time job that allowed her to move into her own room. 

“I was a chronic homeless person,” Deckman says. “The hardest part about ending your homelessness is just finding a job. But the Homeless Garden Project made that possible.” 

There are multiple factors that make getting a job significantly harder for someone experiencing homelessness, Deckman says. Everything from not having a permanent address to lacking a cell phone, clean clothes or access to a shower and the stigmas about homeless people. So when Deckman first learned about the HGP, she had low expectations, having all but given up on the idea of finding a job.  

“People don’t want to deal with homeless people,” says Deckman. “When they see your application and you have no address, it’s almost degrading, the way you get immediately shut down.” 

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That’s one of the ways HGP is unique: the program specifically hires people who are unhoused, giving them the chance at employment that they are so often denied. Along with groups like Santa Cruz Black and Digital NEST, it’s one of the organizations in this year’s Santa Cruz Gives holiday fundraising campaign dedicated to promoting employment and empowerment. 

At the garden, Deckman learned employable skills, and she also worked alongside volunteers and workers who weren’t experiencing homeless. For those 20 hours a week, when Deckman interacted with fellow coworkers, being homeless wasn’t at the forefront of her identity. 

“When I was homeless, I was shut out from the community,” says Deckman. “At the garden, that doesn’t even matter, it’s like that doesn’t even exist and it makes you feel like a normal person.” 

That sense of normalcy was one of the founding principles of the program. The garden, which was co-founded in 1990 by Paul Lee and Lynne Cooper, was born out of the idea to provide a safe, beautiful space for people experiencing homelessness to go to during the day, while also working on a broader scale to end the cycle of homelessness. 

“Our trainees say that when they’re away from the farm, they have a lot of chaos,” HGP Executive Director Darrie Ganzhorn says. “When they come into the project, things are structured, there’s predictability and accountability. They also have people looking out for them, caring about them.” 

Throughout the year, the program provides an avenue out of homelessness by offering 22 paid, part-time positions in gardening and growing organic produce. Over the last seven years, 96% of the program’s graduates have gotten into jobs, and 88% have gotten into housing.

While HGP has so far focused on setting its workers up for success in a full-time job, the garden is working on a program that will connect trainees who have worked on the farm to community members willing to rent to them. The garden already acts as an informal space to make these connections. Ganzhorn says she knows of a few people who have extended an extra room in their home to one of the trainees they work with. The project hopes to optimize on this opportunity through a new program called Finding Flatmates.

“People become friends outside of the program,” Ganzhorn says. “We’re really looking at how our trainees are going to get into housing in this housing market. The model is based on the idea that somebody who works with us, they’ve really kind of shown their dependability and their integrity, and so we can vouch for them and somebody has a room in their house that they want to rent.”

At its core, the program aims to help homeless people transition to full-time employment, and through its garden, HGP simultaneously creates a healthier community. The garden provides organic produce to low-income communities with its Feed 2 Birds program, where organic produce grown on the farm is donated to 15 nonprofit organizations.

Last year, the garden expanded the program by 50%, and with funds from the Santa Cruz Gives campaign, HGP hopes to provide even more low-income families with organic produce. 

With funds raised from the campaign, the garden will also continue to expand its transitional employment opportunities for people experiencing homelessness, and work alongside the unhoused to find solutions to end their homelessness—just like Finding Flatmates hopes to do. 

Santa Cruz Black

Ayo Banjo used to drive 45-plus minutes over the hill to San Jose to get a haircut. 

“It’s so hard, as a Black man, to find a barber in Santa Cruz who can cut Black hair,” Banjo, a 22-year-old activist says. “It took years, but now I found one. These are the types of things white people don’t have to think about here.”

It was through Santa Cruz Black (SCB), an organization dedicated to bringing together and retaining the Black community in Santa Cruz, that Banjo met his now-barber. 

“I used to think these people weren’t here,” says Banjo, who is also the program director of SCB. “But really, we just needed to tap into the Black community that was already here.” 

SCB started in 2020, in response to the murder of George Floyd. Now, it has various programs dedicated to empowering Santa Cruz’s Black community, from community events to affordable housing for Black people to cultivating young Black leaders.

With money from Santa Cruz Gives, Banjo plans to help SCB focus on Black youth, through things like bringing Black leaders to speak to Black students across the county, and taking students on field trips that incorporate Black culture.

“When Black people come to Santa Cruz, even though our number is small, we want them to fall in love with the Black community here, and to feel like a whole family,” says Banjo. “When we help strengthen our most vulnerable groups, we come stronger together as a society.”

Digital NEST 

The technology industry offers some of the highest-paying jobs in the world, and is predicted to grow by 13% between 2020-2030. Digital NEST, founded and headquartered in Watsonville, is on a mission to make sure local Latinx youth have the skills they need to access this high-paying, growing industry.

At the core of Digital NEST is the goal to make technical skills and resources accessible for Latinx youth, to give them the space to nurture their talents and level the playing field with their white, middle- and upper-class peers.

Digital NEST offers free after-school technology classes for youth in high school to people 24 years old. The program also provides students in the program with the connections that Latinx youth in rural communities often don’t have access to. The NEST has a broad network of local businesses, elected leaders and community organizations that students in the program can meet and learn from. 

With funds from the Santa Cruz Gives campaign, Digital NEST will continue its Watsonville Youth Workforce Development Program. Digital NEST Watsonville is a community-driven career development center for primarily Latinx youth that provides free technology skills, skills training, paid internships and networking opportunities with professionals.

Digital NEST members have access to technology and a safe space and are given training in essential workplace skills. Through the nonprofit’s paid internship program, members who excel can build professional portfolios while working with clients and growing their professional skills. Digital NEST also connects members to internships with partners in the tech industry and education and provides mentoring opportunities through our annual NEST Flight conference.

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