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A Garden For Homeless Vets And Community Members Opens In Sandtown-Winchester

Emily Sullivan/WYPR

A new community garden for veterans experiencing homelessness or addiction and Sandtown-Winchester community members opened last week.

The garden spans three formerly vacant lots in the 1600 block of Baker Street. Now, there’s a circle of rocks for group therapy sessions, flowers, trees, and a paved, sloping sidewalk already loved by neighborhood kids on bikes and scooters.

Baltimore Station, a nonprofit that delivers therapeutic residential and outpatient treatment program to veterans in need, is behind the 30’ x 80’ garden.

“We felt that it was our imperative to try to take a vacant lot, which is hard and uninviting, and make it more inviting with grass and flowers and trees,” said John Friedel, the executive director of Baltimore Station.

Friedel and his staffers worked on making the garden a reality for seven years. It was able to come to life after a large donation from a family in honor of their mother, he said. After that funding was secured, local businesses donated materials and services.

The veterans Baltimore Station serves will help to maintain the garden through gardening and landscaping, an activity Friedel calls “therapeutic.”

“It gives our men an opportunity to come out of the building and just be able to enjoy this green space with other members of the community,” he said.

Those members are enjoying it, indeed.

A local hotdog vendor sometimes sets up shop on the garden’s sidewalk -- and her happy customers have chowed down while sitting on the garden’s green benches. Neighbors catch up with each other while lying on the garden’s green grass. Kids like to drag over a portable basketball hoop to play on the garden’s pavement.

The meditative rocks where veterans meet for group therapy sessions have another purpose: Kids love jumping on them. Especially six-year-old Rodney, who lives down the block. His grandmother declined to give his last name.

“First you gotta stand up here, then you jump on the rocks!” Rodney said, as he demonstrated his expert jumping method from rock to rock.

“And then you gotta keep jumping,” he added, as he made his way around the circle.

Rodney and his friends, two other local six-year-olds, also love biking around the garden’s paved sidewalks, which are safer to ride on than the street.

Other, older neighbors appreciate that neighbors and the veterans experiencing homelessness can all use the space together.

“I love it,” said Andre H, who lives across the street from the garden. His wife is sick, and the green space allows him a bit of respite.

“It's a good thing,” he said. “The park stays like this, it can grow and expand.”

He’s seen Narcotics Anonymous meetings in the garden, too.

“And that's a positive thing. So far they're using this park for the appropriate things,” he said.

The lion's share of funding for public green spaces comes from public dollars, but there's a growing number of nonprofits that are increasingly putting money toward them, said Charlie McCabe, the director of the Center for City Park Excellence at the Trust For Public Land. 

Nationwide, community members’ contributions are growing, too. Just a few blocks away from the Baltimore Station’s green space is a community garden with fruits and vegetables. It arose after the unrest caused by former Sandtown resident Freddie Gray’s death in police custody. 

The benefits of green spaces are holistic, especially for vulnerable communities, McCabe said.

“Giving people space to congregate to recreate, to just kind of be outside is so important,” he said. “And if they can walk to that space, they're going to use it more frequently.”

He points to a famous-among-urban-planners LandCare program in Philadelphia, which converted vacant lots to community-oriented green spaces. A study of that program showed a positive change in the health of nearby residents.

“It’s really amazing to see that kind of change. It's a physical reaction to public space,” he said. “People want to congregate in a place that everybody feels safe and comfortable in.”

On Monday, the city announced the launch of its own program based on LandCare, called Lots of Love.

It will work to transform 47 vacant lots in the Upton, Boyd-Booth, Shipley Hill and Carrollton Ridge neighborhoods into green spaces for community gatherings.

Emily Sullivan is a city hall reporter at WYPR, where she covers all things Baltimore politics. She joined WYPR after reporting for NPR’s national airwaves. There, she was a reporter for NPR’s news desk, business desk and presidential conflicts of interest team. Sullivan won a national Edward R. Murrow Award for an investigation into a Trump golf course's finances alongside members of the Embedded team. She has also won awards from the Chesapeake Associated Press Broadcasters Association for her use of sound and feature stories. She has provided news analysis on 1A, The Takeaway, Here & Now and All Things Considered.