Homeless man's garden of hope blooms on L.A. median

Jeff Harmes spends his days grooming a median in Atwater Village and nights 'in the woods' near the 5 Freeway

Los Angeles has so many scruffy, unmanicured median and parkway strips that I've thought about having a contest to name the ugliest.

But there's a median in Atwater Village that draws attention for another reason: It's not an eyesore, it's really nice, with constant improvements such as rock and seashell gardens, wood carvings and terraced landscaping.

The credit does not go to city streets crews, however. It goes to a homeless guy.

"I like to think of it as a contribution to the universe," said Jeff Harmes, a 46-year-old Colorado native who told me he's been homeless since he was 17.

Anyone who lives in the area, me included, has been treated over the last year to a gradual transformation of the approximately 75-foot median strip just north of the Glendale-Hyperion Bridge. This isn't aggressive panhandling, it's industrious panhandling, and you kind of wish there were a thousand guys like him. It might be the only way to clean up the city.

Harmes has attracted chuckles and donations by painting "Coin Toss" on a bin at the end of the median strip. He told me that some people miss, but others have sailed $1 bill airplanes into the bin, and one guy tossed six quarters, every one finding the mark.

"I can live comfortably on $30 a day," he told me, saying that he spends his money on food, cigarettes and beer, and that he lives "in the woods" near the 5 Freeway.

"Hey Steve, look! I just put in a rosebush," Harmes said with great excitement Monday afternoon. "Someone brought it to me last night."

Last week, someone left an overnight offering of greenery in one-gallon containers. Harmes was trying to figure out how to fit them into his evolving creation.

"I don't think they're succulents," he said, which meant he would have to lug jugs of water from a faucet in front of a nearby business.

Harmes said he has no gardening experience. But he pages through a book called "Gardens for All Seasons" for pointers.

He has a captive audience because cars have to stop next to his garden while waiting for the light to turn green. While I visited with him, one motorist told Harmes that the garden was looking good.

"I'm just trying to show progress," he told her. "I shaved my head because I didn't want to pull my hair out over this. Have a good one!"

Another driver rolled down his window and held out a free lunch — a burger and fries from McDonald's.

"Thanks, dude," said Harmes, whose fans have donated the garden tools he uses.

"He's a little bit of an artist in my opinion," said Luis Lopez, who owns an auto repair shop and is executive director of the Atwater Village Chamber of Commerce. "He's done a lot better job than the city does of maintaining the median."

But not everyone in Atwater Village — which has a significant population of homeless people living along the river — is cheering. In January, when a short story about Harmes was posted on the website of KPCC host John Rabe, one reader accused Harmes of stealing plants from yards and another said "he often yells at people" and "he's scared my child."

Harmes vehemently denied any thievery, and residents I spoke to backed him up. But there is some truth, Harmes admits, to claims that he has occasional outbursts, especially when vandals have messed with his garden.

"I tell him he has to stop screaming and yelling, because people do love what he's done here," said Netty Carr, a neighbor who helped Harmes line up a monthly landscaping job at a nearby business. "When I speak to him he's not hostile, he's very gentle, but I do believe he hears voices."

Harmes told me his troubles began early in life. He was adopted at the age of 5 months, his father died, and his mother married a man who physically abused him and his mother.

I asked Jeff if he ever had a mental health diagnosis.

"Depression with psychotic features," he said. "I've been on psychotropics and everything."

He used to drink hard liquor every day, but that was years ago, Harmes said. Now it's beer, and he said he can handle it.

"I don't shake anymore," he said.

I asked Harmes if I could talk to his mother (he proudly sent her photos of his garden before his cellphone got stolen). Sure, he said, giving me her number in Colorado.

Sharon Post said Jeff had lots of behavior problems as a boy, and they tried everything from military school to hospitalization. Jeff threatened to commit suicide more than once, Post said, and when his sister died of a drug overdose, he said he always thought he would be the one to die that way.

His diagnosis, Post said, was mental illness and drug addiction, and she was also told that Jeff was believed to be a victim of fetal alcohol syndrome. That means his biological mother may have drank enough to cause physical and mental defects in her unborn child — conditions that he has wrestled with his entire life.

Harmes told me he came west in about 1998 and used to sweep the streets when he was homeless in Marina del Rey, trying to make some kind of contribution. He eventually wandered east for no particular reason and found the scrubby median strip that would become his latest contribution to the universe.

Thousands of people are homeless in Greater Los Angeles, and it's easy to make collective judgments. But Harmes is a reminder that every one of them has a back story.

I'd like to think there's a way to coax him into supportive housing except that there's an extreme shortage of that very thing. He told me he'd never go for a shelter bed on skid row — too much chaos.

"I'd rather roll up in cardboard."

For now, he's found purpose and made a life for himself. In December, he told me, he got two $100 bills, among other Christmas presents.

As we spoke, he reconsidered his placement of an aloe vera plant, saying that he wanted to replant it where it could be better showcased.

"This is a big project," he said, his hands covered with dirt, as he surveyed the unfinished work in front of him.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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