On a street corner in downtown Phoenix, dozens of people line the sidewalk – sitting together in clusters, walking the street with over-stuffed packs slung over their shoulders. It's a gathering spot for many of the area's homeless – just outside Maricopa County's Human Services Campus, a resource complex designed to help bring an end to homelessness in the Phoenix area.
Inside the campus's locked gates, Ivan McCarthy rests a large backpack and a bulging black garbage bag against the chain-link fence and heads toward a garden, where he joins a group of about a dozen people who've come to learn about harvesting fresh vegetables.
"Has anyone ever had Swiss chard?" asks Kelly Young, University of Arizona Cooperative Extension assistant agent in horticulture.
No one raises a hand.
Young starts to explain the nutritional benefits of leafy greens such as Swiss chard and kale, which her students will learn to harvest today.
"Flamin' Hot Cheetos feel good for a minute, but they don't do anything for our health," she says. "We need to be eating vegetables for our health."
Young is teaching the second in a series of courses designed to teach job skills and good nutrition to homeless people in the Phoenix area.
The class is the result of a partnership between the Maricopa County Human Services Campus and UA Cooperative Extension, part of the UA College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Cooperative Extension staff, with support from Human Services Campus and UA Master Gardener volunteers, offer educational programming twice a month in the campus's one-acre urban garden, which was dedicated in November.
Last month, they taught students about tree-staking and irrigation, preparing them for possible landscaping jobs. This month, participants learned the correct way to harvest vegetables and had the chance to sample what they picked from the garden after seeing it prepared in a live cooking demonstration.
"I'm into agriculture, and I love vegetables and fruits, so that was great," said McCarthy, who harvested and tasted kale for the first time during last week's class.
McCarthy and others in the two-hour afternoon class left with free fresh veggies, as well as information on eating right and a certificate of completion stamped with the UA CALS Cooperative Extension logo.
The eventual goal is the urban garden will be able to provide fresh food for the St. Vincent de Paul charity dining room on the Human Services Campus, where many homeless men and women go for free meals, said Haley Paul, UA Cooperative Extension assistant in urban agriculture, who coordinates the educational programming in the garden.
At the same time, homeless clients will be largely responsible for the garden's maintenance and upkeep, while learning valuable job skills such as farming and landscaping techniques, record keeping and food preparation.
"There's a nutrition aspect, in that you can eat whatever comes from the garden, and the end game is that you get a job," Paul said.
There also is a therapeutic side to the hands-on classes, she notes.
"People can heal themselves through gardening. If someone has issues coming through the gate, hopefully they leave with less anger or frustration," she said.
The garden is just one component of the Human Services Campus, located near South Ninth Avenue and West Jackson Street in downtown Phoenix. Designed as a resource hub for the homeless, the campus partners with several different service agencies, including St. Vincent de Paul, Central Arizona Shelter Services, Maricopa County Health Care for the Homeless, Lodestar Day Resource Center, St. Joseph the Worker and NOVA Safe Haven, among others. On the campus, homeless people can access meals, health care, job training and other services designed to help rehabilitate them.
"The mission of the campus as a whole is to end homelessness and give people life skills to be successful," said David Bridge, the campus's managing director. "The idea is to provide a one-stop shop of resources they need."
Maricopa County represents 60 percent of Arizona's population and reports 50 percent of the state’s homeless population, according to the Arizona Department of Economic Security's 2012 Homelessness in Arizona Annual Report. The report states that one in every 271 persons in Maricopa County experienced homelessness in state fiscal year 2012.
Bridge said he hopes the partnership with the UA will further the campus's mission to get homeless people employed and into permanent homes.
"We really appreciate the UA," he said. "The technical assistance in the garden has been huge, and if the UA gives you a certificate with their stamp on it, when you may not have a lot of other credentials, that's a real accomplishment for people and it makes them more marketable."