Meditation in the kitchen, therapy in the garden

What can change in four months for a homeless man who’s given a chance with his first steady job in years?

Leigh Biddlecome | Stories Behind the Fog – June 28, 2017

I first met Phil in March, when he was living out of his truck. His 90 day maximum stay was nearly up at the shelter, so he slept in the Suburban thinking it was less likely to get broken into with him in the back. He told me he was “number 847 on the waitlist” to get back in a shelter. At the time, the front door of the truck was broken, so he had to climb in from the side, and he was still working to pay off multiple parking tickets to the city of San Francisco through community service: “I got no money to pay those otherwise,” he told me.

Phil was introduced to me by Jamie Stark and Kevin Madrigal, the co-founders of Farming Hope, a young non-profit that employs and trains people experiencing homelessness to work in community gardens and to cook the harvest from those gardens at pop-up meals and other events. Phil was recruited in January as part of their first SF cohort, a group of three men that would be given the opportunity over six months to gain work experience and mentorship. The hypothesis: give those who would otherwise stand in line at the soup kitchen an opportunity to flip sides and cook for others; employ them to tend the gardens where they grow produce for those meals; and through these two roles create a sense of dignity from employment as well as valuable work experience for future employers (who otherwise might not have considered their applications).

Phil and I sat down to talk for the first time during his break from cooking a pop-up dinner in early March. To my first question — how are you today? — he told me his whole life story, pausing only to take a sip of water. He started out bluntly with his 10 years in prison, or as he called it, “the California system.” “Some folks are afraid when they hear that, but I don’t want you to be afraid!” he insisted. (Within a few months, I would see this insistence in action, with his bear-hug greetings and broad smile.)

The early years of his life are representative of many his age who grew up in the Fillmore, San Francisco’s thriving, culturally rich African-American community — that is, until urban renewal plans beginning in the 1950s set off a process of rezoning and demolition that radically changed the neighborhood. Phil reminisced about his parents, who had owned a cafe and a nightclub in the Fillmore: “My mom taught us how to cook soul food, like what she served in the cafe — crab gumbo, collard greens, ham hocks. So I grew up middle class. Back then we had a little money. [My parents] taught us the right thing to do, I just took the wrong path. I thought it was hip what the others were doing.” Several further steps down this “wrong path” brought him to jail, and that mark on his record has made it difficult to get “certain jobs,” as he put it. The consequences in our current system: “It’s hard for me to make a living with my background,” he sighed.

He pauses in his story when he gets to 2016, clearly still pained by this recent separation from his wife, eight months prior: “she asked me to leave, and I didn’t protest — should have”.

“It’s the first time I’ve ever been homeless. I’m 55 years old and this is the most difficult time in my life.”

Phil (left) prepping in the kitchen at Farming Hope pop-up dinner, with Farming Hope co-founder Kevin Madrigal (right). Photo: Emily Golla.

When I asked Phil what he was hopeful for in the coming years, he once again focused on the truck: “I’m looking forward to getting these tickets taken care of, and fixing the door on the driver’s side.” Those who work and volunteer in homeless services in SF told me this was common: many people live out of their cars — their only remaining asset — and get caught in a cycle of parking tickets and costly repairs.

In my naiveté, I had expected to hear his longer term vision for the future now that he’d been given this chance by Farming Hope, but it was hard to get him talking about anything beyond a few days away.

In a city where it’s fashionable amongst the young and wealthy to hire personal coaches to help with ‘backwards life-planning’ and ‘long term goal-mapping’, it can be a jolt to talk to someone whose hopes are by circumstance constrained to an extremely short term time frame. But of course they are: how could you think about where you want to be in 5 years when you need to spend all of your energy and mental strength plotting out the next 24 hours of where and when to move the vehicle that is your home?

A complex layering of problems can be overwhelming for those in Phil’s situation: aside from the issues with the truck, he told me that he’s “struggling every day,” both “with the homelessness and health issues — diabetes, arthritis, asthma. Full of stress.”

At the end of our conversation, I pressed Phil a bit on how he planned to get through these challenges, and he articulated most keenly a desire to keep working. About his Farming Hope employment, he said he was “hopeful this can be a long term thing. Jamie and Kevin, they know I’m a hard worker, and they trust me even though they know my background.” This seemed like the first real chance he’d had in years — but he was under no delusions about the fragility of his situation. The question remained whether this opportunity was going to be enough to break through.

May 2017

At the beginning of May, I met Phil again, this time at the Heart of the City Farmers’ Market in UN Plaza, where Farming Hope employs at least two of their homeless employees each Wednesday to prepare and serve lunches at their stand. The day I’m there Josey Baker Bread has donated loaves for the sandwich they’re making with roasted broccoli, sriracha, and avocado spread. As much as the legendary bread is a pull, the customers pausing before the chalkboard menu seem to be equally intrigued by the fact that greens on the sandwich were picked by the team at the TNDC Tenderloin People’s Garden. The garden, only a couple blocks away, is one of the community gardens where Farming Hope tends the beds in exchange for harvest privileges. There’s a constant stream of customers, which keeps Phil and the others busy putting together plates back on the prep table.

Kevin Madrigal, Farming Hope’s co-founder and main mentoring presence in the kitchen, peppers Phil and his colleague with tips on how to lay on the bright orange calendula petals they picked from the garden onto the salad, to give the spinach a visual pop. While Phil grew up learning how to cook soul food from his mother (he rattles off the dishes he used to make at home: “shrimp gumbo, fried chicken, hot tamales”), he explains that what he is learning here is more about preparation for a professional kitchen context. “It’s furthering my skills,” he says, “and with the stuff I already know, hopefully I can add to it.”

Around 1pm big hugs go around the stall: they’ve sold out for the day, for the first time since starting at the Farmers’ Market back in March.

Phil finally has a chance to talk so we find a quieter spot to sit outside the tent. The big news since the last time we saw each other is that he’s moved back in with his wife. As soon as I hear this I’m expecting to hear the happy reunion story, especially given how much he shared with me the last time we talked. But even if he’s no longer living on the streets, his mood is dark.

“I don’t have no friends in my life to help,” he explains, “my parents is dead — it’s just me and my wife. We’re both on SSI, we don’t have nothing saved or put away, so if something goes wrong we through. I try to save, try to keep working, but I don’t know…”

What is left unsaid as he trails off, is that getting off the streets is only a tiny step towards a stable, sustainable life.

And then he gets at the real crux of the precariousness: “I took care of the parking tickets. But I take care of one [problem] and another one comes up. The harder I try to keep things balanced, it gets so lost and everything revolves around money, income — and then I get to crying because my life ain’t worth it.”

He brightens a little when I ask how things are now that he’s back home with his wife. He’s proud of their one bedroom apartment, and the dining table he just managed to buy for them. But, just like the last time we talked, in the very next breath he circles back around to his truck, which has a mechanical issue and can’t start. “I’m stressed about that, I gotta get it fixed,” he says, fidgeting and shaking his head over the thought of it. “That’s what’s on my mind right now. If I can’t get it moved by Friday I’m donating it — I’m paying insurance on it, and I’m not going to let it sit there build up on tickets. Might as well give it away before it costs me money I don’t have. It’s going to kill me though.”

It turns out Phil meant this seriously: aside from deep affection for the truck, his home for the last couple months, it was also his only way of getting to his shifts at Farming Hope since social anxiety keeps him from public transport. Once again, I’m left with his frustration at the struggle to reach stability.

June 2017

In early June, I meet Phil, Jamie, and another Farming Hope employee for their Monday morning garden shift at the TNDC Tenderloin People’s Garden. A bright mural looks down on the rows of zucchini, beans, beets, garlic, herbs, and calendula at the end of each row; to say this quarter of a block is a haven in the neighborhood would be an understatement.

Phil and I get started by weeding around beets, and while we work our way down the row, he proudly points out the red onions and collard greens he planted a couple months ago. We’re interrupted by a spirited conversation with a man outside the garden who comes up to the fence and spontaneously asks whether we have any collard greens. Phil points out the greens, which sets the man off on story of mistaking tobacco leaves for collard greens as a child in North Carolina and taking a nibble on the wrong leaf. Everyone working in the garden pauses to laugh with the neighbor and it becomes clear why this garden work is a powerful antidote to life in a shelter or on the streets. Phil and other members of his cohort had told me repeatedly that this is the closest thing they have to therapy.

By the end of the shift there is also the tangible sense that working these garden beds together, with a diverse group of volunteers as well as Farming Hope employees, is how community gets built. It builds conversation by conversation — both inside the garden fence and over it, — and string by string of twine as we hang the pole beans that Phil looks forward to harvesting later in the summer.

We start talking while he’s chopping up onions for the tostadas on the menu that night, and his phone rings. It’s Lucille (his wife), just arrived at the door. They’ve been living back together for a couple months now, and to everyone’s delight, he greets her when she comes inside with a big hug and kiss.

I sit down with Lucille while Phil finishes up his cooking duties for the night, and she’s initially a bit shy, but soon she’s telling me about the celebrities that used to eat in Phil’s parents’ restaurant when it was still in business, wowing our table with descriptions of luminaries and musicians like James Brown. She also makes a point of conveying her pride in his progress: “he’s come a long way, he really has.”

Phil and his wife Lucille, who came to support him at the June 8th Farming Hope pop-up dinner. Photo: Emily Golla.

When first course gets served, this progress is made visible: Phil, a self-professed shy man, stands up in front of the 40-some person group gathered at dinner and describes how he prepared this butternut squash soup, detailing not only the ingredients but his influence in putting it on the menu tonight. I’m struck by the fact that he is no longer simply training and taking orders in the kitchen but has developed enough confidence to contribute his opinion (“Kevin wanted to make tamales with that squash but I said, no way, we have to make that soup that everyone loves!”). He continues, his tone more serious and slowing down a notch: “Most of all I want to speak about Farming Hope tonight — they’ve been very good to me, they’ve supported me, taught me a lot of things. There’s a lot of meditation in the kitchen for me. It’s therapy, and I’m stronger for my age now. You know I used to quit when things were difficult — I’d find something easy, but life isn’t always easy, and I don’t quit no more. And I feel real good about the support and love here.”

He sits back down, smiling, to a big round of applause, and reflects to this smaller group that he would never have been able to stand up in front of a crowd and talk like this six months ago.

“I’m opening up,” he admits, “and it took me a long time because I’m shy, but now Jamie and Kevin have me working the cashier spot at the Farmers’ Market and that helps me with my customer service. I quit thinking that I won’t be acceptable to people who aren’t like me.”

He continued, our entire table silent, captivated: “My life has been up and down like a see-saw — I’ve been in and out of incarceration, but now this is what I do, stay focused. I’m 55 years old! I’m doing real good, moving forward and I appreciate that, instead of going backwards.”

At the end of this month, Phil begins a trial as the lead garden shift manager for Farming Hope.

For more information on Farming Hope, visit www.farminghope.org.

Source: Stories Behind the Fog

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