For years, Unity Park off East Lancaster Avenue served as a weekend gathering spot for the homeless, a sanctuary where they could find a free meal and fellowship.
But the park was closed on weekdays, leaving many in the homeless district to wander the streets.
That changed on March 17, when park hours were expanded from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. A ceremony marking the new hours was held Wednesday morning.
“We wanted to provide a safe place for people to go,” said Toby Owen, president of the Presbyterian Night Shelter, just a block away from Unity Park.
“We also wanted to add security during the daytime to enhance safety around the Presbyterian Night Shelter. It has made a huge difference.”
The good news about Unity Park, however, has been tempered with the fact that Feed by Grace, the organization that operates the park, will have to scale back another operation, Project Growth, because of the pending sale of two large lots where homeless people cultivated organic produce for the past two years.
The owner of the property, Flora Brewer, a longtime advocate for the homeless, said contracts have been signed to sell the lots. She declined to identify the buyer or plans for the property.
Project Growth has consolidated its operations on a third, smaller plot of land just down the street.
Despite this setback, those involved with Project Growth are optimistic that their organization will continue to thrive, said Neale Mansfield, Feed by Grace executive director.
“I used to always talk to God about how big the storm was that I faced,” said Trinidad Salazar, one of the part-time gardeners working for Feed by Grace. “Now I talk to the storm about how big the God is that I serve. Two or three years ago, I could not have said that because my faith was small. It’s grown since then.”
Making a difference
Having the park open during the week has already made a difference in the neighborhood southeast of downtown, Owen said. Homeless people who used to loiter in the streets, sleep on the sidewalks and store their belongings on private property can now go to Unity Park, in the 1400 block of East Presidio Street, out of the way of traffic, Owen said.
Physical fitness, music and art programs should be in place at the park in April. A $40,000 grant from the Amon Carter Foundation is paying for an activities instructor, and organizers envision the creation of basketball and softball teams, art and music classes, weightlifting and yoga, Mansfield said.
There may be opportunities in the future for art and talent shows, Mansfield said.
“There’s a lot of talent here on these streets,” Mansfield said. “There’s some great voices out here and some great artists, too.”
Unity Park volunteers helped bring order to the chaos that could erupt when well-meaning faith-based groups arrived suddenly with enough food and clothing to supply hundreds of people at a time, Brewer said.
The Unity Park volunteers helped schedule when the groups show up and gave them a place to set up shop.
“We wanted to create a space where we could direct the folks who wanted to engage in these efforts to help in a more organized fashion,” Brewer said.
Unity Park also became a centerpiece in the effort to clean up the East Lancaster area, a process that has taken more than 15 years, Brewer said. But as the area was spruced up and some vacant property was sold, interest increased in Brewer’s property used by Project Growth.
Brewer, who has supported Feed by Grace since its inception, said the land sale will bring new opportunities for everyone.
“It’s my hope with some resources, volunteers and cash, Neale [Mansfield] can move forward to have Feed by Grace have their own property and some greater visibility for their produce sales,” Brewer said.
“That way he can expand and have more employment for the homeless and have a more sustainable business model for the organization.”
A successful project
Project Growth’s two large gardens were on Brewer’s land in the 1300 block of East Presidio Street. Operations have now shifted to a smaller plot nearby, in the 1200 block of East Presidio Street, Mansfield said.
Project Growth partnered with Green Phoenix Farms, which built a greenhouse for year-round vegetable production.
“They just finished that greenhouse two or three weeks ago and now this happened,” Mansfield said.
Workers will warehouse parts of the infrastructure and the greenhouse, but not all of it can be moved, Mansfield said.
Last year Project Growth, which is about two years old, sold between $200 and $500 in produce each week and had four employees. This year, they will have to reduce the operation, Mansfield said.
Project Growth participants have identified an acre of land about a “10-minute walk away” that they would like to purchase if they can get enough money, Mansfield said. It would cost about $50,000 to buy the land and reposition the gardens and greenhouse, Mansfield said.
“We never had to throw anything away and that was how we knew we were on the right track,” Mansfield said.
“I truly believe that if we grow it, people will buy it.”