Outdoor garden creates haven for the homeless

Garden Mart is fenced off and has been clear about trespassing with signs like this one.

Plants within the fences of Garden Mart off San Benito Street sit protected in their individual pots, waiting for someone to take them home.

Over the fence, around 130 plants live under the mural at the adjacent property, which is owned by Dave Buich. The planter boxes are cracked and water spills out onto the concrete whenever Garden Mart Owner Marci Huston tends to what’s planted there.

“The struggle for these little plants just to grow in this dirt is huge,” Huston said.

Huston sees the plants inside the fence versus outside the fence as a symbol representing the community and the homeless within the community.

“While they’ve given up on what we would consider a conventional way of life, they’re survivors,” Huston said.

Huston has come to know the local homeless population well, because groups of them congregate around the Garden Mart property, often during business hours. When the groups aren’t there, they leave behind waste, including empty alcohol containers, drug paraphernalia, and human excrement, she said.

She described a stressful incident back in July when a group of homeless people shouted at her and customers.

“They were screaming at me and taunting me saying: ‘We don’t know why you have fences—your plants are ugly’ and telling my customers, ‘Her plants are ugly—don’t buy her plants,’” Huston said. “I would watch people leave and I’d say, ‘This is going to give me a stroke.’”

Huston tried dealing with her business problem, which she said is a private property rights issue, in various ways. She described addressing homeless people trespassing on her property.

“You have to call code enforcement if it looks like someone’s living there,” Huston said. “Code enforcement will post a ‘no trespassing’ sign for two weeks. Then they come in and clear it out. Code enforcement can’t take the people and the police can’t take the living stuff. So the police take the people. Code enforcement takes the living stuff. But code enforcement won’t come and pick up the trash. That’s up to the property owner.”

Huston said there are a lot of rules, but all she wants to do is sell her plants.

“I don’t want to deal with picking up all this trash,” she said. “Why do I need to do that? It’s my property and people shouldn’t be here in the first place. That’s the problem that needs to be solved.”

Huston reached out to both the city of Hollister and San Benito County for help with her problem, but received little help. She attended two city council meetings and three board of supervisors meetings to bring her issue to the attention of local politicians during public comment.

She attended the intergovernmental committee meeting on Sept. 1 after being notified that Garden Mart was on the agenda.

San Benito High School District Superintendent John Perales spoke on the issue during public comment.

“I’d caution this group to watch pronoun usage,” Perales said. “They’re our citizens who are not receiving the services they need.”

Mayor Ignacio Velazquez addressed the issue head-on during the intergovernmental committee.

“The issue is simple and clear: unless you have services, you can’t do much about it,” Velazquez said. “Because of our partnership here, we got together to solve this issue. I think we finally realize here this problem isn’t going away. Other cities and counties have this problem. We come together to deal with these issues. It’s a matter of having a facility to get them started, a facility with basic services.”

Velazquez continued.

“The answer is services. The answer is help, and caring about our community members. We’re going to have to allocate money from our budget every year to deal with this.”

City and county officials are banking on the success of the new homeless services center, which is in planning stages.

“When we get this homeless center established and operating, there’s going to be a training facility. There’s going to be staff that’ll direct individuals to the services they need,” said Supervisor Anthony Botelho. “Until we get that in operation, we’re going to continue to have the issue we’re seeing right now. Will it cure it all? Absolutely not. There are many cities that have centers established already that’ll always have a homeless problem, but we could lower that population and get people dealing with their issues, get them the training they need in today’s workforce, and hopefully as time goes on working with city and county establish transitional housing to get individuals and families off the streets.”

Huston brought up an idea for a public/private partnership between local government and local companies willing to hire homeless people with an arrest record.

“Rather than give them training in hopes that someone will hire them, actually find the companies now, because I would be a company,” Huston said to the intergovernmental committee. “Then you’re training them for the right job and you have the companies that are willing to take a risk.”

Huston said she plans on hiring two of the homeless people that hang around Garden Mart.

“I don’t know what the solution is, but the solution is not to arrest people,” she said. “Then they end up with arrest records and they’re not employable.”

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