Mercy Housing Refugee Housing Program - East 13th Avenue Community Garden
The East 13th Avenue Community Garden was developed as an integrative community building activity for the residents of Mercy Housing's Grace Apartments in Denver Colorado and the immediate neighborhood. The hope is that the community garden will facilitate the integration of the refugee families into the general neighborhood encompassing the apartment complex. In addition, the garden will provide a place for all residents to socialize and a place for the children to play freely.
The East 13th Avenue Community Garden was developed to help ease the relationship between the Somali Bantu residents and the other residents who reside at Grace Apartments. Grace Apartments is a 54-unit property owned and managed by Mercy Housing, Inc. Approximately 35% of the units are rented to refugee families.
Mercy Housing requested that Lyn Morland of the BRYCS program visit Denver to discuss parenting issues with the Colorado Refugee Services Network and to conduct a parenting class for Somali Bantu parents and refugee service providers. This parenting class resulted in three key activities: training for Somali Bantu youth on law enforcement issues and the dangers of gang-type appearance and activities; the provision of memberships for Somali Bantu youth at a local boys club/girls club; and creating a community garden and children's play area as a means of getting Somali Bantu mothers and children out of their apartments and into the community.
Subsequently, Mercy Housing initiated the establishment of a community garden and play area on a two acre site adjacent to Grace Apartments, this included a presentation to residents of the neighborhood and the Somali Bantu residents at Grace Apartments about community gardening by Dan Van Lehman, Deputy Director of the Portland State University Somali Bantu Project. There were two other key parties at this presentation who have proved to be invaluable. First, Denver City Council person Marcia Johnson and a member of her staff were present and have subsequently been strong champions of the project with the City of Denver. Secondly, the Denver Urban Gardens program was also present and has subsequently become a major partner by providing design services, establishing a structure for the garden association, and generally leading the garden construction efforts. A final outcome of this involvement was the establishment of the Somali Bantu Leadership Council. The Council was formed from residents of the general neighborhood that Grace Apartments is located in and includes a core group of Somali Bantu that have good English skills and the support of the Somali Bantu community. The East 13th Avenue Community Garden provided a specific project for the community to organize around and provided access to mainstream resources to increase the opportunity for full integration of the Somali Bantus in Denver.
The East 13th Avenue Community Garden was proposed as a place for the refugees to talk and interact with other community members while learning new skills and providing structure for Somali Bantu mothers and children of all ages. The potential for income generation through sales of produce is also a key incentive for Somali Bantu participation in the garden.
The East 13th Avenue Community Garden serves residents of Grace Apartments as well as neighboring renters and homeowners. Denver Urban Gardens (DUG) is a nonprofit organization that has designed, helped develop community garden associations and otherwise provided technical assistance to community garden associations throughout the Denver area. Their model has been adapted to meet the needs of the East 13th Avenue community Garden Association.
The costs of the lease, necessary soil tests at the site, and fencing the site have been borne by Mercy Housing. The Mercy Housing, Refugee Housing program, funded through the Office of Refugee Resettlement, has committed staff time and facilitated the organization of the community garden planning committee. There are two key issues yet to be resolved: establishing a reimbursement system to compensate Grace Apartments for water used at the garden or installation of a water tap at the garden; and broadening participation in the garden to better reflect the composition of the neighborhood.
The community garden association will be a voluntary self-sustaining community organization.
Training for the association will be provided by Denver Urban Gardens. The Somali Bantu Community Development Corporation will organize participation of the Somali Bantu garden association members. Resident Services and Property Operations staff at Grace Apartments will provide a nominal level of time and assistance to the garden program.
Mercy Housing believes that this project will be a catalyst for other community building activities that will be reflected in lower crime rates and a higher level of community participation in community activities.
Similarly, establishment of a neighborhood apartment association and collaborative efforts to increase the economic vitality and safety of the neighborhood, and a general welcoming of immigrants in the neighborhood would be valued, unanticipated consequences of the garden project. A secondary benefit of the garden project for Somali Bantus has been initiation of efforts through the Somali Bantu Community Development Corporation to become involved in other community gardens, area organic farms, and farmers' markets as income-generating activities for the Bantus.
The East 13th Avenue Community Garden project will be evaluated on the basis of overall community participation as well as the participation of all the resident groups living at Grace Apartments; the maintenance over time of an active community garden association, by the continued maintenance and support of the garden, and by the continued development of the balance of the entire 2-acre site to include planting of grass for a soccer field and general recreational area.
A cornerstone of Mercy Housing is the creation of healthy communities in the areas in which we provide housing opportunities for low income people. In areas such as the East 13th Avenue neighborhood in Denver where we have refugee residents and where there is a significant immigrant population, this requires diligent, long-term involvement to build bridges between refugees, other immigrants, and the neighborhood. Community gardens are an excellent vehicle for this involvement. Other Key Elements Mercy Housing's involvement in creating the 13th Avenue Community Garden is a promising community integration and civic engagement (participatory) project requiring collaboration on multiple levels, including neighborhood organizations, local refugee organizations including the Somali Bantu Community Development Corporation, local government, state government, the National-Somali Bantu Leadership Council, and BRYCS.
This project began in 2004; it is still operating.