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How an urban garden is attacking homelessness

A garden near 13th and and Highland Ave. is helping people -- some homeless and other transitioning from it -- to find purpose and healing.  Keep reading to find out how.

I know my purpose. My purpose is to help the community. - Crystal James

If you catch up with Crystal James today, she’s all about the community work.  Nowadays, she’s helping out at an urban garden, pulling weeds and harvesting snap peas.

But last year, it was a different story.

"I was homeless for a year and a half," James said. "Everything happened at once."

"Mental illness, lost my job, daddy died, daughter got involved with the kingpin drug dealers.  Four different things transpired in my life that sent me down a spiral."

A spiral into homelessness, fueled by mental illness.  And Crystal will be the first to say, it can happen to anyone. Even her previous job as a counselor didn't make her immune.

"I have a Master's in mental health, and working in the mental health field not only broadened my perspective as and outlook as a person, from where I came from, but how I can be help to other people," James said.

And in the garden, Crystal finds comfort. 

She’s a volunteer at  Cream City Gardens, run by The Guest House.  It’s nonprofit organization serving Milwaukee's homeless population, and it helped Crystal get back on her feet.  Today, she’s a Resident Manager there, working a job readiness program this summer.

"It's rewarding because I feel good now that I can get up every morning and come to a job, and knowing I'm going somewhere to make a difference" James said.

So how does the garden make that difference?  All of the home-grown produce grown goes back to the Guest House and its residents, its neighbors, and the Friedens Community Ministries network of food pantries, according to its website.

And, for Crystal, whether she is tilling the soil or watering tomatoes, she says the garden, for her, has become a symbol for healing, for growth and for change.

"It's not where you're at now, it's where you are going," James said.

Click the player to hear the audio version of this story, and check back next week for more stories form the garden.

Director of Digital Content | Radio Milwaukee