Most evenings, Art King spends time weeding and watering the garden he shares with his neighbors on Chicago’s west side. Along with other residents of his building, Art tends a 4,000 square foot garden where lettuce, collard greens, and arugula grow in orderly rows between mulched pathways. One recent evening, Art watered tomato and eggplant transplants with a garden hose. Before going back inside, Art rolled up the hose, then checked on the resident flock of eight chickens, which gathered around Art’s feet.
“We have a runner,” Art said, laughing. “Any time we open the gate, she’s trying to get out the door.” One bird clucked innocently.
It may seem unusual to have a cooperatively run garden with chickens attached to a Chicago apartment building, but what makes this garden even more unique is that the building is designed for people at risk of homelessness.
” I like seeing where my food comes from, start to finish. I know I’m eating real food, not artificial products when I get stuff out of the garden and take it upstairs to cook.”
The building, named Harvest Commons, is a program of Heartland Alliance and is home to nearly seventy residents. At Harvest Commons, residents’ rent is scaled to their income, so if they have no income, they pay no rent. As they find jobs and their income increases, participants pay rent proportionally. Almost everyone living at Harvest Commons was either experiencing homelessness or was at risk of homelessness before moving in. Most residents also have additional challenges such as a disability or a criminal background that make creating a safe, stable life even more difficult. Support services are available and there’s no limit to the amount of time residents can live there.
Art, who has lived in the building since 2014, said the garden and chickens have become an important part of his life. Before coming to the building, Art didn’t have much interest or experience in gardening.
“When I got here, seeing all the plants ignited that interest,” Art said. “And now, I really like gardening. I like seeing where my food comes from, start to finish. I know I’m eating real food, not artificial products when I get stuff out of the garden and take it upstairs to cook.” He explained that the benefits extend beyond the garden and kitchen, too. He now makes healthier choices at the grocery store, and at work people ask him for gardening advice.
Studies have shown that community gardens can increase a sense of community and build social connections. The garden at Harvest Commons, which also boasts a small apple orchard and beehives, acts as an informal meeting place for residents, according to Jessica Surma, Heartland Alliance’s Urban Agriculture Coordinator, who manages agricultural programs both at Harvest Commons and Chicago FarmWorks.
“When I leave, I’ll look for an area where I have a garden accessible, where I can continue on doing some of the things I’ve enjoyed here”
“Living in the city, people can come and go without much interaction,” Jessica pointed out,”but the garden gives people an opportunity to interact with their neighbors. It builds community.”
Art agreed. ”I’ve kind of been a loner-type person,” he said. “I was always comfortable with being alone, but now I’m more comfortable being around people, and I’m appreciating things happening in my life a whole lot more. I can learn to live in a community more so than I did a couple years ago.”
But can vegetables and chickens really make a tangible difference in people’s lives? It seems so, at least when coupled with the other services available to residents of Harvest Commons. In a 2015 study, Heartland Alliance’s Social IMPACT Research Center spent six months studying Harvest Commons and its programming to assess the impact it has on residents. The study found that residents of Harvest Commons were more likely to have health insurance, visited the emergency room less often, ate healthier, and got more exercise than before they moved to Harvest Commons. It also showed that their feelings of safety and support improved and that life satisfaction and outlook for the future are much more positive. (You can read the entire report here.)
Art says that he likes living at Harvest Commons, but that when he is ready to move, he wants to keep gardening.
“When I leave, I’ll look for an area where I have a garden accessible, where I can continue on doing some of the things I’ve enjoyed here,” he said. “These are the things I like doing. They’re things I’ve incorporated into my life.”
The Social IMPACT Research Center is a research group within Heartland Alliance that works with a variety of nonprofits and government agencies to find evidence-based solutions to poverty.
Dave Snyder is a writer and gardener whose poems, essays and criticism have appeared in Best American Poetry, Gastronomica, Colorado Review, The Iowa Review and elsewhere. From 2012 – 2015, Dave worked for Heartland Alliance managing Chicago FarmWorks. This year, he returns to tell FarmWorks’ story.