* Miami sees itself as a model for reducing homelessness

* Community farm project grows produce for upscale eatery

By Zachary Fagenson

MIAMI, Sept 9 (Reuters) - As part of an innovative effort to tackle Miami's problem with homelessness, Xavier Wright has traded the streets of downtown for a live-in community farm project in south Florida that grows produce for an upscale restaurant.

Wright, 25, said it's his first steady job in two years.

"I love this. I love being outside, I love working with my hands," said Wright, wearing a straw hat to shield himself from Florida's relentless summer sun.

Verde Gardens, a $17.2 million, 145-unit complex built for Miami's formerly homeless, boasts a 22-acre (9-hectare) organic farm planted with a variety of fruits and vegetables from potatoes to bananas and pigeon peas.

Wright, who previously served in the U.S. Marine Corps in Iraq, had resided in a homeless shelter with his 6-year-old autistic son before moving to Verde Gardens.

The farm is tapping into a rising trend in the restaurant industry to use locally grown seasonal products.

Norman Van Aken, a nationally acclaimed chef, has been buying produce from the farm for about six months for his newest eco-friendly restaurant, Tuyo, which sits atop the newly created Miami Culinary Institute in downtown Miami.

With breathtaking views of the city and Biscayne Bay, Tuyo serves a well-heeled crowd, including classical music aficionados who come by after attending performances at the city's opera house and concert hall a few blocks away.

"This should be able to be done in many other places, it's sustainable, it's local and it's organic," Van Aken said as he examined a delivery of Verde Gardens Seminole pumpkins in the kitchen at Tuyo, where they'll be turned into an estofado, a creamy pumpkin soup served with bits of braised chicken, ribbons of ham, corn and topped with fresh shaved truffles.

"It's not a bargain, but it's not more expensive" than other produce, he said.

Wright's job at the farm, an apprenticeship, pays $10 an hour. He will spend eight months with nine other apprentices rotating around the farm's different areas. Once he's done, the hope is that he'll move into a full-time job on another farm.

Wright served one tour with the Marines in Iraq from 2006 to 2007. He describes himself as "good with computers" but couldn't find a job that suited him.

A better fit for Wright was moving into the live-work community in Homestead, sandwiched between Miami's growing metropolis and the more laid-back Florida Keys.

The apartments and support services were developed by Carrfour Supportive Housing, a nonprofit real estate company funded by a local homeless trust as well as the federal and state governments.


Carrfour sprung from the local Chamber of Commerce to help turn the tide of homelessness. Since starting in the early 1990s, Carrfour has collected about $200 million to build 1,378 affordable housing units. Rent for each unit is a flat 30 percent of residents' monthly income.

At Verde Gardens there's a playground for the children and a farmers' market where residents can sell produce and other cottage-industry products. Most important for Wright is a nearby school that gives his autistic son, Xavier Jr., 6, the help he needs.

Miami sees itself as a model for reducing homelessness. City officials from Austin, Texas, visited last month to see what's been done to reduce the number from more than 8,000 living on the streets a decade ago to fewer than 1,000 today.

A model similar to Verde Gardens is also taking root in Chicago, where Growing Home Inc is looking to move people out of the cycle of homelessness by offering paid internships on one of three urban farms.

One of the keys to solving the problem was creating a tax to fund potential solutions, said Ron Book, head of the Homeless Trust and one of Florida's best-known lobbyists.

"If you don't have plans for formerly homeless people, if you don't find places to employ them, then what have you really done?" he asked.

For more than two decades, Book has earned a reputation as the go-to guy to get legislative action in Tallahassee, and he's just as effective in the homeless arena. In between discussing the trust's ongoing projects he's bellowing into a cell phone and demanding to know why he saw only one jungle gym on the children's playground.

Meanwhile, Xavier Wright says he found exactly what he's looking for in a job, and is also taking a design class in sustainable living to prepare for his next career move.

"If you give me a job in front of a computer in the air conditioning I'll go crazy," he said. "I'm starting a fumigation company that will focus on the whole organic side of the business."

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  • Juan Lopez, a resident at Verde Gardens, helps prepare the land to be planted with seasonal vegetables.

  • Juan Lopez, a resident at Verde Gardens, helps prepare the land to be planted with seasonal vegetables.

  • Norman Van Aken, the head chef at Tuyo, visits the farm.

  • Angie, a rescued horse who does her share at the farm with grazing and fertilizing.

  • An herb garden, using a spiraling structure for optimum rainwater usage.

  • At the farm's nursery.

  • Plants at the farm's nursery.

  • Three men prepare the land for seasonal vegetables to be planted.

  • A loofah vegetable, which is harvested and turned into the shower sponges.

  • Alma Santos, who works at the farmer's market, spends some time with Angie, a horse that was rescued.

  • A rooster wanders on the farm. The eggs the chickens lay are sold at the farmer's markt every week.

  • In between seasons, workers on the farm at Verde Gardens are working to prepare the land for the next crop.

  • One of the 145 town homes at Verde Gardens.

  • Alma Santos decorated the wall of her living room with photos of her and her son.

  • Alma Santos never thought she would have a two-bedroom, two-bathroom home after living in shelters and an efficiency with her son.

  • Alma Santos proudly stands at the door of her home at Verde Gardens.

  • Inside, Alma Santos leaves a positive note for her 12-year-old son, Jaime, to read on his way out the door for school in the morning.

  • Courtney Hill, a resident at Verde Gardens, is a volunteer coordinator at Verde Gardens. She used her love for children to create a summer camp program run entirely by volunteers, as well as other activities for children who live in the shelter and at the housing units.

  • The farmer's market is open Fridays from 2 to 8 p.m. and Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. at 12690 SW 280 St. in Homestead.

  • Jarred babaganoush at the farmer's market.

  • Jarred jams at the farmer's market.

  • Dried fruit and vegetables at the farmer's market.

  • Squashes collected from the farm for the market

  • Former President Bill Clinton works on a mural during his 2010 visit, during the Clinton Global Initiative's Day of Service program. Clinton was joined by former Miami Heat basketball player to tour the community.

  • The completed mural, one of many hanging throughout the offices at Verde Gardens.

  • Former President Bill Clinton's painted signature on the mural.

  • Alma Santos with her son, Jaime, at dinner at Tuyo in Miami. The residents were invited to a dinner made with fresh produce from the farm.

  • Alma Santos with her son, Jaime, at dinner at Tuyo in Miami. The residents were invited to a dinner made with fresh produce from the farm.