S.P.Y is Creating an Urban Garden for California’s Homeless Youth

Just a few blocks from Abbot Kinney you’ll find S.P.Y, otherwise known as Safe Place For Youth. Their website reads that their mission is to, “inspire, nurture, and empower the resilient human spirit of homeless youth by providing immediate and lasting solutions, one young person at a time.” They do this by opening their doors Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays to provide a range of services including healthy meals, first aids kits, hygiene products, clothing, blankets, sleeping bags, HIV and Hepatitis C testing, mental health-care counseling, expecting and parenting courses, and once a week partnering with the LA Gay & Lesbian Center to focus on street outreach for the GLBTQ community.

At the beginning of March, the non-profit organization held a celebratory lunch, courtesy of Gjelina, to share their recently-completed urban garden with the community. Within seconds of my arrival, it was easy to see why coming to S.P.Y would make anyone feel at home. A whimsical mural of a spirit animal in different hues of blue, designed by Meghan DeRoma and painted by Deutsch LA, was first to catch my eye. Just next to to this a robust olive tree stood tall, basking in the sunlight. I followed the music…and the smell of pizza… as a sea of geometric shapes and inspirational designs led me to a flight of galvanized troughs. Grapefruit, blueberries, kale, parsley, kohlrabi— a root vegetable that’s crunchy like the heart of broccoli— and three additional olive trees. I soon learned that the funding for the garden was made possible by California State Supervisor Sheila Kuehl’s Food for the Soul initiative— a project in L.A. county aimed at ending chronic and veteran homelessness in the area. S.P.Y was one of 13 organizations within the district that received funding for this project. But there were several other key players, including garden designer Alex DelVecchio, that made what could have been a bleak lot feel organic, charming, and charged with character.

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The olive trees were donated by Valley Crest and trucked in by Pierre Landscaping. Then there was Dean Miya, a volunteer from S.P.Y and Home Grown Gardens. Miya has been working with Alison Hurst, the founder of S.P.Y, for the last six years, and he helped the organization develop their proposal. Last, but certainly not least, Miya brought in Matthew Van Diepen, the founder of Home Grown Gardens, who filled the troughs with peat moss, placed a cloth fabric with small cutout holes over the buckets, secured the fabric to the side, created a thick layer of soil, and added PVC pipe to circulate water throughout the trough. “They require approximately 10- to 20- gallons of water every other week,” Van Diepen told me. “I found this technique for the trough in The Container Gardener’s Bible (a useful resource for those working in areas where soil is hard to come by). We are really happy with how they turned out, and we plan to add four to six more planters as soon as we can,” he continued. Van Diepen has since employees two of S.P.Y’s youth who showed both passion and initiative when completing phase one of the urban garden. 

As I roamed throughout the space, I learned that Forever 21 and American Apparel are among the greatest donators when it comes to clothing the underprivileged. St. Mark’s Church, which is steps from the discrete entrance to S.P.Y, also holds a “Sunday Undy drive”. I learned about S.P.Y’s impressive 3D printing laboratory, which was donated by 3D systems, and serves as another vessel for creative souls to enact passion. Snapchat, as an organization, is also a generous and consistent donor to S.P.Y. (They are currently installing showers for the affected youth.) Additional activities offered include therapeutic drumming circles with UCLA Creative Arts, yoga, meditation, and more pragmatic activities like medical and dental checkups– courtesy of Venice Family Clinic.

“Before I started this work, I used to be a garden designer,” founder Alison Hurst told the crowd at the event. “This work is very close to my heart, and this garden has brought together so many amazing people in the community,” she continued. “Another reason that we are here today is because of these heart-shaped magnets on this olive tree. They represent three members of our youth that we lost in 2015. But we can always come and be close to the olive tree. They will forever be with us.”

To plant a garden is to form a community, which is something we really believe in here at Garden Collage. At S.P.Y, the garden will serve as another place for youth (disenfranchised and otherwise) to connect with each other and other members of the community. Hurst, of course, couldn’t be happier with the initiative that people have already taken, she says smiling: “I imagine the youth are going to take it in a direction that we never would have imagined.” 

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