Tower Garden Teaches Transferable Life Skills to Combat Homelessness

Hollywood’s Step Up on Vine is no ordinary rooftop urban farm. This unique nonprofit supports and provides individuals experiencing homelessness and mental health conditions with an opportunity to recover, stabilize, and integrate back into their community. And one way they’re doing this is through the use of Tower Gardens . 

Recent reports estimate Hollywood’s homeless population is nearly 59,000, with more than 16,000 of those individuals considered chronically homeless. Step Up’s Chief Vocational Officer, Amy Stone, has dedicated the last 17 years to combating homelessness, and believes growing with Tower Gardens creates a sustainable solution for teaching transferable life skills.

We met virtually with Stone to learn more about the mission of Step Up on Vine, the role that Tower Garden plays in it all, and how sustainability can serve as a means to end homelessness. Learn more about the program through our interview below. 

Q. How did the Step Up Foundation decide to start Step Up on Vine?

Stone: It was our natural transition to move from service provisions on the west side of Santa Monica into another very much needed area — Hollywood. The homeless population in Hollywood is predominately the TAY population, which stands for Transitional Age Youth. It skews very heavily into marginalized and victimized demographics. We had some residential properties, but we didn’t have a second mothership. 

Our Second Street building in Santa Monica has everything in it. It has corporate offices and is a residential property that includes a drop-in center, emergency services, meals, psychiatrists, and nurses. We basically wanted to replicate that in Hollywood. That’s how Vine started. It serves meals and has a full industrial kitchen.

Q. How long can residents live at Step Up on Vine, and what is living there like?

Stone: It’s rent subsidized. Once they’re in, and as long as they can pay their rent, they can stay. Vine serves residents anywhere from their early 20’s to late 70’s. The first floor is services, and the other four floors are apartments. That is our clients’ outdoor space. We wanted it to also be therapeutically peaceful for the population, while also being functional for our meals program. 

Q. What role do the Tower Garden units play at Step Up?

Stone: The Vine is a LEED-certified Platinum Green facility. The roof is made to get maximum sun exposure. We use the upkeep and growing of the Towers as employment and training opportunities for people in our vocational program. We have a nutrition program that is for the residents in the building, and they have to take it if they want to be able to go up and harvest what they want off the Towers. There is no point in having them take the good food if they don’t know how to prepare it. They can take more nutrition classes after that. Life skills will come in and teach them how to prepare kale and other produce.

Q. Have any individuals gone on to land a job after completing the program?

Stone: The Tower Garden program employs two full-time clients, but that’s usually made into four part-time positions. And there is a job coach attached to it. We use it as job training. We’ve got five people employed in the community who have gone on to work in a restaurant that has a Tower Garden, some have gone to work at a nursery, and one went on to a landscaping job. About five people have gotten positions out in the community because of the training they received in our program. 

Q. What kinds of produce are normally being grown on your Towers?

Stone: I usually put lavender up in the Tower Gardens because it’s soothing and smells good. We always have kale and tomatoes. The strawberries also do well. We’ll grow lots of mixed greens and lots of lettuces. What we harvest will go downstairs to The Vine’s kitchen, which serves around 45 meals a day. 

Q. Are there any personal success stories over the years that stand out to you? 

Stone: A big part of recovery is having meaningful employment. It’s really hard sometimes to find positions for people who may not be able to be in an enclosed space, handle loud noises, or can only work 30 minutes at a time before needing a break. So the job opportunities and the training received caring for the Tower Gardens allows us to be able to train someone and give them work for 30 minutes once a week if we have to. That’s probably the best thing. 

For a lot of people, we use this as their baby steps. Once they train three or four days a week with the Towers, we can then move them into the kitchen. This eventually leads to self sufficiency and employment in the community. 

Q. We’ve seen more people hit hard economically this year due to the pandemic. Has that caused an increase in more people needing support from your program? 

Stone: We’ve been doing meals-to-go the entire time. I can only do so much to keep my guys safe. I can’t have employees introduce the virus into the homeless population, because they will have a 50 percent death rate. We really had to minimize contact to just essential services. And communal eating is out the door. We have actually seen less numbers because they are taking food to-go. I do know that overall in LA County, the food banks have seen a significant increase in the number of people who need food support. 

Q. How do you believe that sustainability can help to end homelessness?

Stone: Our core values are hope, wellness, voice and choice, respect, and collaborative relationships. Tower Garden very much brings those core values together. Since I’m in vocational work, I always talk about everyone’s “life pie.” For disabeled persons, their pie is usually pretty unbalanced in terms of how they can get out in the community. Your pie is your spiritual/recreational, your personal stuff, and your employment. These are the three pieces of the pie that keep everything balanced. A lot of people’s pie can be unbalanced at times — but if it doesn’t self-correct, you’re really not functioning as part of the community. 

I think Tower Garden helps to balance that pie in a lot of ways. It helps those who need food, and need healthy food, who can’t even meet their basic needs. It also feeds into employment stability. Our stipend positions are all paid. They start at $15 an hour. People have to show up and take the training course. The best part of vocational work like that is that it keeps them coming back. But it also gives us a chance to train people in how to manage their illness on the job, which helps make them successful in the community, and ultimately gets them off state-supported services while reintegrating them into the community. 

We want to thank Amy for sharing this important story with us! Have a story you’d like to share? Reach out to us via our official Facebook page. Happy growing!


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