In her office here at the Housing Assistance Corp., Livia Munck Davis pulls out a color photograph of her childhood home on a farm in central Denmark. She points out sprawling fields, a barn, the manor house and surrounding buildings where three generations of her family led one of that country's most daring and successful social experiments: a working farm also inhabited by--and almost entirely run by--homeless men.
Now the idea is taking shape on Cape Cod, which is increasingly squeezed by a lack of affordable housing and has only one emergency shelter. The Hyannis-based agency recently received a onetime $250,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to buy land for a farm. And if the project comes to fruition, advocates for the homeless say it would represent the first federally funded farm for the homeless in the United States and serve as a potentially significant model.
"We don't want this to be a poor farm," said Davis, a certified social work manager who intends to live on the kibbutz-style property with her husband and two children. "It's not a place where we put people to essentially warehouse them. The intention is to give people a solid place where they can get back on their feet."
Across the country, nonprofit programs such as From the Ground Up in Washington, D.C., and faith-based organizations such as Catholic Worker and the Clairvaux Farm work camp in Earleville, Md., offer back-to-the-earth opportunities and services for the homeless and unemployed. Some supply food or shelter; others invite homeless men and women to volunteer on farms, teaching them horticultural and agricultural skills. Still others simply provide a temporary rural refuge.
But the Cape Cod proposal expands the concept of farming to benefit a needy population in an era of social spending cuts and stopgap measures, Davis and other advocates said. As a grant recipient of the "Continuum of Care Initiative," the centerpiece of the Clinton administration's policy on homelessness, the NOAH Farm project represents an innovative model and comes against the backdrop of politics in New York, where HUD Secretary Andrew M. Cuomo last month seized control of federal homelessness funds from Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani (R). The unprecedented action followed a court ruling that Giuliani improperly blocked HUD grants to groups critical of his policies.
In Massachusetts, NOAH will link homeless individuals with housing and support to help them become permanently self-sufficient, Davis said. It also promises to take homeless men and women off the street voluntarily without segregating them from the rest of society or forcing them to shuffle from shelter to shelter. As a vibrant community, it will feature private rooms as well as on-site business and educational facilities, she said. Outside agencies would provide counseling on substance abuse and mental health off the farm to preserve its nonclinical, family atmosphere.
"This is an idea that's now transforming the way this country addresses homelessness," said Fred Karnas, HUD's deputy assistant secretary for community planning and development. "It approaches homelessness in a holistic way."
Michael Stoops, a community organizer with the Washington-based National Coalition for the Homeless, agreed. "If it's done for the right reasons, it's a good thing to do, and it's a concept worth copying around the country," Stoops said.
Skeptics note the danger of recreating county-supported poorhouses or 19th century-type work farms, where indigent men were sentenced to brutal servitude. Davis insists, however, that her family's Moltrup farm in Denmark is a positive prototype. Her great-grandfather, a minister, was inspired to found the community in 1912 to help the disenfranchised in his country after hearing African American leader Booker T. Washington lecture on the rehabilitation of slaves.
The 300-acre estate--which is supported by public and private funding--has survived two world wars and housed more than 7,500 homeless men and ex-prisoners. "That was his premise," Davis said. "Give them a home."
Decades later and thousands of miles away, she found another group of people facing a similar crisis on Cape Cod. Massachusetts spends more than $120 million a year on the homeless, but their numbers here have remained steady with an estimated 150 individuals homeless at any given time. Seasonal visitors aggravate the problem, and the emergency shelter accommodates only 50 beds.
The farm is expected initially to host as many as 30 chronically homeless men and women, many of whom have criminal records, mental illness or drug and alcohol addictions. A site has yet to be located, and money must be raised. But Howard Eddy of Hyannis, who spent the last decade in and out of shelters, said such a place could spare others years of misery.
"It would offer a safe place to work and stay where people will be able to make some money and better their lives," said Eddy, 52, who lives in transitional housing. "Otherwise, you just go back to what you know."
All farm residents would be involved in its operation, from construction to crop cultivation and raising livestock, Davis said. They must agree to contribute rent and work at least 35 hours a week there or at a local business. Staff also will pay rent and work alongside residents to foster a spirit of community and interdependence.
Residents will be encouraged to pursue high school equivalency diplomas and mentor newcomers, and several businesses have offered to provide job skills training. Rules will be minimal, but strictly enforced: No drugs. No alcohol. No violence.
Davis knows the project is not without its pitfalls, but remains optimistic. "What we know from the farm in Denmark is that we can build more trust and rapport by doing a task together, by my depending on someone else as much as they depend on me," she said.
"A good part of what people need to learn is that it's not just about them anymore."
CAPTION: Danish minister Johannes Munck founded Moltrup Farm after hearing Booker T. Washington lecture on rehabilitating slaves.
CAPTION: In a social experiment, homeless men have run the Moltrup Farm in Denmark, overseen by three generations of the Munck family.
CAPTION: Munck's great-granddaughter, Livia Munck Davis, said she wants the farm proposed for Cape Cod "to give people a solid place where they can get back on their feet."