Urbavore's Dilemma: EarthLinks helps the displaced set down roots

Urbavore's Dilemma is an ongoing web series detailing city dwellers' commitment to urban homesteading. From May through September, Westword writer Joel Warner will get his hands dirty, covering everything from backyard chickens to front-lawn gardens, from greenhouses to co-ops and food-sharing. Check out the full series here.

They come from transitional housing, from homeless shelters and from the street. "How are you, stranger?" they say to one another when they arrive at the nondescript, one-story building on Larimer. Before they dig into breakfast, a spread of healthy and locally-grown food, they file into the garden out back. When they return, their arms are filled with fresh vegetables and repurposed clear plastic supermarket containers filled with tiny hand-picked flowers, like boxes of colorful jewels.

Another day has begun at GreenFingers, a micro-economic development project for homeless and low-income adults that's run by Earthlinks, a Denver nonprofit. Earthlinks has been connecting poor and marginalized people with nature for the past thirteen years with day trips to natural areas, garden projects and craft workshops. The results are impressive: The Earthlinks facility on Larimer is filled with bird houses made from gourds grown out back, not to mention candles, vases and ornaments decorated with pressed and dried flowers. Most of it is sold during pre-holiday sales at local churches and cover 30 percent of the non-profit's annual budget.

Now, however, Earthlinks is aiming to take advantage of increased public attention on sustainability and local food. Staff members are developing a small hive box for mason bees that clients can build and sell. To help raise money for the project, EarthLinks is hosting a "Bee the Change" fundraiser on September 24 at the Park Hill Golf Club, 4141 E. 35th Ave; for more information call 303-389-0085. They're also looking into producing rainwater collection barrels and drip watering systems using plastic drums donated by a local soda factory. "Really, if this could be the population that teaches us in Denver how to compost at home, how to use rainwater, how awesome would that be?" says Earthlinks co-director Julie Schwab.

GreenFingers isn't just about teaching people job skills. It's also about providing those involved with the serenity and direction that comes with literally getting one's hands dirty. "I need this connection with nature, and with people who love and honor it," says Gloria, one of the clients, as those around her enjoy their pre-work breakfast. "It gives me peace in a big way. I've got a number of problems, financial and otherwise. And it seems like through nature is the only way I can get peace."

Darlene, one of her colleagues, expresses herself in a poem that she recites aloud to the group. "We grow, we learn, we move on," she reads. "Isn't this a natural gift of nature?"

After breakfast, the work day begins. Some of the clients are on flower duty, flattening and drying the petals inside stacks of cardboard weighed down with cement blocks. Others head outside to work on the garden, where the air is thick with pollen. They fill the composter made from salvaged wood with coffee ground and other refuse they've collected over the past few days. They take a peek at the active bee hive, which will eventually be harvested for honey as well as honeycomb that can be made into lip balm. Then they get to work in the raised garden beds, picking ripe calabacitas from their vines and collecting more tiny flowers -- some they laughingly call "Yosemite Sams," since their petals resemble the cartoon character's trademark beard and mustache.

This patch of green feels removed from the tableau of warehouses and concrete that surround it -- and that's exactly the point, says Earthlinks co-director Cass Cronan. "My sense is, there is so much dysfunction and craziness on the street. The opportunity for people to come together and sort out their issues with the earth in a peaceful place is really beneficial to them," she says. "They may have less of a connection to stuff than the rest of us do. I think we need that connection, to remind us where we come from and where are going."