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Tuesday, May 25, 2010 - 11:51

Homelessness agencies, their service users and prisoners around the country had cause to celebrate today when the Places of Change Show Garden won a silver medal at the Chelsea Flower Show. The Garden is the largest ever in the history of the event.

It’s part of an ambitious collaboration between national regeneration agency the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA), Communities and Local Government (CLG), the Eden Project, the national membership charity Homeless Link, and the London Employer Accord. It builds on the success of the silver medal award-winning Key Garden at the 2009 Chelsea Flower Show, which required the manpower of over 200 homeless service users.

At almost 600 square metres and almost three times the size of the Key, and containing around 12,000 plants, a journey through the Places of Change garden reveals exclusion, choices, opportunity, hope, achievement, enterprise and change - and its powerful and challenging themes have proved a winner with the Royal Horticultural Society judges.

The Garden has been created by around 500 volunteers from over 40 homeless agencies from all corners of the country, including Deptford Reach in London, the Salvation Army in Plymouth, St George’s Crypt in Leeds and Stonham Women’s Services in Hull. People from eight prisons also joined in with the growing and planting.

Overseen by the Eden Project’s award-winning designer Paul Stone, participants have been involved at every stage; from design, planting, gardening, construction, and carpentry during the site development, to on-site hospitality and multi-media facilities during the week of the Show. In doing so, they have gained new skills, new confidence, and discovered new talents.

Rob, a volunteer and service user at Watford New Hope Trust, who helped grow the vegetables in the food zone of the garden said today: "It’s been a privilege to be here and part of such a major event. It’s been a pleasure to focus on growing, which has been a great release from the pressures of daily life, and, most of all, hugely therapeutic."

Richard Cunningham, Manager of the HCA's £80m Places of Change capital programme, which funded the project, said: "We are delighted with the success of the Places of Change Garden, which has helped provide new opportunity, skills, and hope for some society’s most disadvantaged people.

"But more importantly, this garden is just one part of a major step change we’re helping bring about in the way homeless services are delivered, through the Places of Change programme and the Government’s wider rough sleeping strategy, in demonstrating that homeless service delivery is about more than just providing a bed and a roof, it’s about helping people develop the necessary self-confidence and skills to make real change and move on with their lives. The garden is a powerful metaphor for this.”

It is also hoped that by experiencing this garden, and seeing Places of Change in action, some of the stereotypes often associated with society’s most disadvantaged people can be broken down.

Howard Jones, the Eden Project’s Director of Human Networks, said: “Throughout the whole process of running this project and working with the extraordinary collection of people who have made this possible, it has been clear to me that any prize belongs to everyone - and to each one it would mean different things.

Triumph, recognition, humility are all in there, but most of all, I suspect the feeling is of gratitude that we have been listened to, understood and supported. This is a big message and it is a big achievement - we are very grateful to have had the chance."

Jenny Edwards, Chief Executive of Homeless Link, said: “The Garden is a bold statement: just see the potential and creativity of homeless people when they are given a chance. The ideas, hard work and team spirit of the people taking part is breath-taking. It’s been a feat to bring everyone together. The love people show for their gardening and the natural world has made this a triumph.”

The overall theme of the garden is craft and enterprise, and the importance of teamwork, which is reflected in a number of specially designated zones such as crops and food; florestry and leisure; medicine and health – which features a “green man” made of hundreds of healing plants grown in the precise bodily regions to which they bring benefit, to symbolise nurture and well-being; industry and manufacture; and conservation and the environment. All of these act as a metaphor for new skills and the journey embarked on by the individual to get there.

A trade stand adjacent to the garden is providing an opportunity to showcase some of the other skills being developed around the country as well as products from social enterprises employing homeless and formerly homeless people. This is a real demonstration of how services are really working to help people develop the skills necessary to bring about lasting changes in their lives.

The London Employer Accord are organising a series of employer events throughout Show Week whereby businesses from a range of sectors will be able to gain an understanding of the range of marketable skills that the homeless volunteers possess, with the ultimate aim over the coming months to provide them with opportunities such as apprenticeships, training, work placements and eventually sustained employment. Neville Cavendish, Director of the London Employer Accord, said: “We are going to use the London Employer Accord network to showcase everyone’s skills and, working with the London Development Agency, Jobcentre Plus, Business Action on Homelessness and a range of training providers, aim to move as many of the volunteers as possible into paid employment over the coming months.

“I have already met some of the volunteers who are working on the garden and they are very keen to talk to the employers and discuss their aims and goals for developing their skills and getting a job.”

The 2010 RHS Chelsea Flower Show runs from 25th-29th May.