Urban Homeless Leave the Streets, Live Off Land : Poverty: A volunteer keeps them down on the farm. The pioneering effort seems to be paying off.

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A year ago, John Dixon, Tony Mastro and George Wilder were living in meat trucks, cardboard boxes and homeless shelters in New York City. Today, they are living off the land--land that could someday be theirs under a plan to turn street people into farmers.

“If someone had told me a year ago I’d be digging in the earth, I would have said they were crazy,” said Dixon, 50, who lost his museum job and then his apartment in 1990 and wound up on the streets.

Now, he is a pioneer, one of first homeless men brought to an Upstate New York farm by a visionary farmer and crusader for justice, Winston Gordon.


Gordon saw the number of homeless people rising while the number of farmers fell. It was a mathematical problem for which he offered a solution: plucking the homeless out of the city and transplanting them to his family’s farm.

There they rise early and work hard, living the lives of latter-day homesteaders.

The three men are the first crop of pioneers sown by Earthwise Education Center, a nonprofit group founded by Gordon, his brother Joe and organic farming advocate David Yarrow. Gordon calls it “bringing the people back home.”

“On the streets, you can say, ‘Well, putting money in that homeless man’s cup is a dead-end street,’ ” he said. “Well, why not teach him to farm, then buy vegetables from him? Then he can say, ‘I’m back on the streets, providing for your nutrition.’ ”

Earthwise is built on the premise that America has lost respect for its two greatest resources, the people and the land. It borrows ideas from new age farming, the utopian communes of the 1960s and the Iroquois Indian spirit of giving back to the land what you take out of it.

“Our Onondaga Indian friends say we must think today for seven generations,” Gordon says.

The group is looking into the future of farming. Most farmers are nearing retirement, and “there’s no one to take over from them,” Yarrow said. Since 1981, the number of U.S. farms has fallen 13.75%, from 2.44 million to 2.1 million.

“Street people have good potential to become farmers because they’re survivors,” Yarrow said. “Training landless people in the methods of sustainable agriculture is laying the foundation for a new food system.”


Last March, working on referrals from welfare agencies, Earthwise chose eight homeless men from New York City and brought them to Cornerstone Farm, 30 miles northeast of Syracuse. Gordon persuaded his family, who live in Chicago, to buy the 250-acre farm eight years ago.

The start-up costs were minimal; the land and buildings already were there. Earthwise gets some donations and is applying for government and private grants.

The 44-year-old Gordon said he was a homeless farm laborer for 10 years himself after serving in the Air Force during the Vietnam War. He also lived in communes in the 1960s and has studied utopian experiments such as the 19th Century Oneida community, just south of Cornerstone Farm.

At Cornerstone, the emphasis has been on organic farming, which produces food without chemical pesticides and puts as much nourishment back into the soil as it takes out.

Since their arrival, Dixon, Mastro and Wilder say they have become healthier and happier than ever. Wilder, who is 34 and says he was homeless for 18 years, had been an alcoholic and was in and out of hospitals.

“Eating good food, breathing fresh air. Their bodies are changing, and they don’t even know it,” Gordon said.


Dixon, a lifelong city dweller, said going rural was “nothing compared to the transition from self-reliance and employment to being without a job and being homeless.”

At first, the homeless men had doubts. They worried that they might not be able to adapt to the hard life of farming. Friends warned them that they were selling themselves into plantation slavery.

“I thought, who in their right mind is going to take people off the streets and take them in to live with them?” said Mastro, 34, who lost his apartment after losing his deli job last year.

Four of the eight men quickly dropped out, discouraged by the hard work. A fifth man, who had been one of the “moles” living in railroad tunnels beneath Manhattan, moved back to New York City in October and plans to marry and stay off the streets. He has a standing invitation to return to Cornerstone.

In their first season, the farm trainees planted a little of everything--beans, squash, potatoes, corn.

Next year, on the same piece of land, Dixon, Mastro and Wilder will each plant an acre on their own. Meanwhile, the Gordons and Yarrow hope to bring in 15 to 20 new homeless trainees. By next spring, they hope to build a greenhouse and a bunkhouse to accommodate recruits.


Dixon, Mastro and Wilder live in a comfortable house with private bedrooms, television, stereos, books and a large common room. The Gordons and Yarrow live in the farm’s main house nearby.

Gordon said he will give the men 10 acres each if they stick with the program for four years. Dixon and Mastro said they plan to take him up on it.