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Fighting Homelessness with Sustainability

One Hawaii emergency shelter uses vertical gardening and sustainability classes to support its residents.

By Ernest J. Martin

December 17, 2010

Vertical garden

Courtesy Institute for Human Services Hawaii

As part of the urban farming initiative at the Institute for Human Services Hawaii, residents grow vertical gardens, which provide food for the emergency shelter and help lower the building's cooling costs.

The state of Hawaii depends significantly on imported foods, due in large part to the high property values: a whopping $95,000-plus per acre of farmland. For organizations such as the Institute for Human Services Hawaii, an emergency shelter that serves approximately 635 meals per day to homeless and at-risk people, costs can really add up.

In response, IHS Hawaii started an urban farming initiative to help lighten that load, increase Hawaii’s food security, reduce the environmental impact of imported foods and add greater nutritional value to its meals. All the while, it teaches its residents the skills to develop and maintain these sustainable systems.

At IHS, a vertical garden provides fresh produce for the shelter’s kitchen. The garden, created and implemented with help from green design firm First Look Exteriors, produces fruit and veggies grown without pesticides.

“We’re growing tomatoes, basil, parsley, sage, rosemarymint and thyme,” says Kate Bepko, IHS’s community relations manager. “When we were in our first run, we even planted a little papaya seedling. We didn’t expect it to work, but the papaya seed did so well that we actually planted the little tree into the ground. It blew us away.”

In addition to providing the resident’s meals with a boost of nutrition, the gardens, which are grown along the building’s walls, help reduce the cooling costs and provide a beautiful, natural aesthetic for the shelter.

“The seeds are placed in small pots and germinated until they can be placed in the grid. We used recycled paper in the grid around the soil. The plants reach up to the sun; it’s beautiful,” says Bepko.

With the vertical gardens being a success, IHS has plans to construct a rooftop garden that utilizes hydroponics and aquaponics. In a test run, IHS’s aquaponic system—a symbiotic system of fish and plants, where fish waste feeds the root systems that in turn filter the water—yielded copious lettuce used throughout the two-month trial. The rooftop garden, already equipped with a solar-powered water-heating system and safety measures, will also offer a place where agricultural technology can be taught to the shelter residents.

Since mid-2009, IHS’s youth residents have participated in a wide variety of sustainability classes, from sustainable agricultural practices to composting and even solar-oven design. The goal of the classes is to nurture and empower students with experiences that will instill a greater knowledge of the Earth and invaluable tools to actively engage in sustainable practices throughout their lives.

“They learn that we can reuse things, for example crayon stumps. We use a solar oven to melt them down and make a beautiful rainbow crayon,” says Bepko. “This allows children to think twice about how they can take something that might be conceived as garbage and recycle it.”

More recently the sustainability courses have been offered to the adult residents as a pathway to career development. At the end of each course, adult residents receive a certificate of completion, which they can add to their skills and accomplishments when updating their resumes.

“There are a lot of opportunities, especially in Hawaii, for jobs related to what is being taught here,” Bepko says.

Learn more about IHS Hawaii and how you can support its sustainability efforts in the new year.

Give us your opinion on Fighting Homelessness with Sustainability.
Submit Comment »
That's even better than a CSA! Direct action to help people.
Bob, Los Angeles, CA
Posted: 10/16/2012 8:34:06 AM
Interesting idea
Annie, Houston, TX
Posted: 8/30/2012 9:47:08 AM
Merry Christmas!
g, i, ID
Posted: 12/25/2010 7:42:29 PM
That's a great idea!
Galadriel, Lothlorien, ME
Posted: 12/21/2010 11:30:51 PM

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