At Alameda Point Collaborative,
farming helps to break the cycle of homelessness
By Rachel Trachten | Photos by Lindsay Dobbs
“I never wanted to be a farmer; that was hard work,” says Vincent Figueroa, who came to farming relatively late in life. The 56-year-old self-described former drug addict arrived at Alameda Point Collaborative (APC) two years ago in need of housing, work, and support for his sobriety. When Figueroa’s case manager offered him an $8 per hour job-training slot in APC’s Farm2Market program, he stepped up to the challenge.
At APC, formerly homeless people like Figueroa find themselves in permanent housing supported by an array of on-site social services. Situated on the grounds of the decommissioned Alameda Naval Air Station, APC opened in 1999 and operates 200 units of housing on 34 acres. Of their 500 residents, 300 are children or youth, and one adult family member must have a mental health disorder or physical disability to qualify.
Don’t Be Afraid
Figueroa has always loved to cook, but he had no experience growing food. On the farm, he appreciated the chance to learn. He describes the process with a sense of awe: “To plant something from a little seedling and then watch it pop up and plant it in the field and watch it grow, then pick it and sell it.” He adds that the experience taught him about vegetables like Asian eggplant and Napa cabbage, and how to cook with zucchini. Figueroa’s 21-year-old son had also entered the training program, but quit. Then Figueroa convinced his son to rejoin so they could be trainees together. Both enjoyed the parent-child bonding experience, something Figueroa says he missed out on with his other children because of his drug use. “I was teaching him how to drive the fork lift,” he says of the time he and his son spent on the farm, “and how to weed and get down on your hands and knees and get grimy and dirty, and don’t be afraid.”
Evan Krokowski supervises the training program, which combines hands-on farm work with sales of weekly produce boxes through the farm’s CSA program. Cohorts of 3 to 6 trainees work 20 hours per week during each six-month training session, starting with two weeks in the office for a job skills review. Krokowski views his trainees as a potential employer would, identifying any barriers to maintaining employment and seeking help from APC casework staff when barriers arise. For example, if a trainee isn’t reliably showing up to work, Krokowski alerts a caseworker, who can arrange for needed childcare or extra emotional support to help the trainee commit to a daily schedule.
Krokowski says his focus is on building skills essential to any job, like being on time, following through on tasks, and communicating well with supervisors and coworkers. And the farm tasks also carry over into other types of work. “Yes, we’re gardening and growing food,” he says, “but really we’re creating a product and doing quality control and inventory; we’re filling orders; on the back end we’re doing marketing and sales and customer service.”
Chicken Three Squash Delight
Interacting with customers turned out to be a strong suit for the outgoing Figueroa, who says he developed the gift of gab once he stopped using drugs. When CSA customers asked him what to do with so many zucchini, he gave them the recipe for his Chicken Three Squash Delight, a dish that also features oyster sauce, garlic, red onions, and avocado. Likewise, he had advice for making the most of an abundance of tomatoes. “Don’t just use them for one thing; dehydrate them to make sundried tomatoes, make sauce, then freeze it,” he told CSA customers.
Figueroa had been driving the farm’s CSA produce to the pick-up site at Alameda’s Buena Vista United Methodist Church and getting to know church congregants while talking tomatoes. “The people were so loving, and I got attached to them, and they got attached to me,” he says. Last December he was baptized in the church and became part of the congregation. He attends every Sunday.
Proceeds from the Farm2Market CSA support the farm and training program, and Krokowski says they have the capacity to add more people to their CSA roster. The fruits and veggies are pesticide free, with two pick-up sites available, one on each end of Alameda Island. Water used to wash CSA produce is recycled to sprinkle on growing plants. The farm is home to 15 beehives and a good composting operation, which accepts additional green waste donated by Alameda neighbors Hangar 1, St. George Spirits, and Rock Wall Wine Company.
Right next to the farm is the Ploughshares Nursery, a social enterprise of APC that gives its income to APC’s supportive housing programs. (Additional funding comes from the federal Department of Housing & Urban Development, and residents pay 30% of their income toward rent.) The sprawling nursery space is packed with drought-tolerant plants, California natives, and demonstration areas. “We want to show people how easy it is,” says Jeff Bridge, the operation’s general manager. His demo sites feature straw-bale gardening, native strawberries used as ground cover, a chicken coop, and a habitat with a birdbath basin to attract bees and butterflies. The nursery hosts free gardening workshops throughout the year, and a new nursery building, complete with solar power, greywater recycling, and a living roof, is under construction.
Making the Leap
About 30 people, ranging in age from 18 to 60-something, have graduated from the Farm2Market program. (The farm has been an adult job-training site for 2.5 years; before that it hosted a program geared toward youth and food justice.) Some graduates have moved on to jobs in commercial kitchens or training programs in solar panel installation; others went on to complete their GED, and several were hired by the City of Alameda for building and grounds maintenance. Figueroa followed his passion for cooking to the Kitchen of Champions culinary training program at St. Vincent de Paul, which serves 1000 meals daily to homeless people. In addition, he has part-time work with a local catering company.
Krokowski says that although APC offers permanent housing, the goal is to get each individual and family to a place where they feel stable and supported enough to decide to move on. Once people have faced the trauma of being homeless, he says, “the decision to leave this permanent, stable situation is a huge leap.”
Figueroa hopes to make that leap some day. “I want to move up,” he says, “and as I move up I want to give somebody else a chance to be in this permanent housing; I’d like to land a good job and let someone else be in my place; it’s like a circle.”
Farm2Market CSA: squareup.com/market/farm2market-csa