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A transformed Fort Lyon promises homeless a second chance

Refuge on the plains



Most people know it as a former prison on the eastern plains. But James Ginsburg describes Fort Lyon this way: "an opportunity to sit down and sort of articulate what would be my ideal program."

Ginsburg, of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, has spent years working with people on Denver's streets, first as an outreach worker, then with substance abuse counseling, and finally in "Housing First," a model which provides homeless users with an apartment before working with them toward sobriety.

But Fort Lyon, located in Bent County, is something completely fresh — a retreat of sorts, with historic buildings that recall an Ivy League campus and can house up to 750 people. Plus 552 acres, two swimming pools, eight wells, a water treatment plant, agricultural facilities, sports fields, metal and wood shops, a state-of-the-art kitchen, a library and also a chapel.

Since the Coalition got the contract earlier this year from the state Division of Housing to run a homeless program, Fort Lyon has become Ginsburg's field of dreams. He talks eagerly of offering everything from equine therapy to acupuncture to sweat lodges (for a special Native American program). But mostly, he's excited that Colorado will have a major long-term treatment facility. He notes that according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Colorado lacks programs that last 90 days or longer and offer mental health services.

In a recent search, he found that New York has 176. Kansas has 22. Colorado has 14.

Dreams to reality

Fort Lyon started to go up in the late 1800s, and expanded in the decades that followed. Originally an Army fort, it spent nearly 70 years as a Veterans Administration hospital, before becoming a prison for a decade.

When Gov. John Hickenlooper closed the prison in 2011 due to state budget cuts, he promised to reuse the Fort, hopefully mitigating the loss of 200 rural jobs. A committee of statewide stakeholders, along with the community itself, came up with the idea of housing the homeless, and county leaders fought for it in the Legislature. But Fort Lyon faced opposition from a bipartisan group who argued that the concept was unproven and that the aging fort would prove a money pit.

The House approved House Bill 1261 this spring, to create the Fort Lyon program and fund it. That bill died in Senate Appropriations, only to be revived the same day when Sen. Angela Giron, D-Pueblo, tacked it onto Senate Bill 210, which aimed to reform correction officers' pay. That bill passed, though detractors argued that it violated the single-subject rule.

Giron says she believes in the program. Though it will cost the state $8.7 million over two years, she notes that communities already spend thousands comping ambulance rides, hospital stays and police calls for the homeless. Fort Lyon, she says, will spend far less per resident.

And, she says, "We have that chance to be able to help someone turn their lives around."

The program will likely run off Medicaid payments, federal grants, resident payments and other outside funding in future years. It's expected to generate 35 to 50 jobs. In a recent Pueblo Chieftain column, Bent County Commissioner Bill Long praised the Legislature for approving the plan. "Thank you, Colorado!" he wrote.

That attitude has surprised some in the nonprofit world, who've seen NIMBY reactions to homeless programs. At an Aug. 29 meeting, Ginsburg told an audience of homeless care providers in Colorado Springs, "It's rare that you have a community that says, 'Yes, please bring 300 homeless addicts.'"

Getting started

This week, around 25 homeless people came to Fort Lyon from across the state.

The new residents will establish a resident council and help iron out day-to-day operations. Within two years, the program will swell to as many as 300 people, all of whom will be voluntarily isolated from peers and environments that encouraged harmful behavior. Fort Lyon is located 6½ miles from the nearest liquor store.

The program will favor homeless veterans, but accept adults regardless of military service, provided they are homeless or about to lose their subsidized housing; that they need help with substance abuse; that they are motivated to change as measured by a short test; that they've detoxed from drugs and alcohol to the point that they show no acute symptoms; and that they meet other criteria. The program will accept people with mental illness.

Two program lengths will be offered: 90 days focused on ending substance abuse for those looking to hold on to their subsidized housing despite drug and alcohol violations, and a 24-month program that will offer a substance abuse program and educational and transitional services. Residents will also be encouraged to work (and pick up vocational training) on-site.

Fort Lyon is partnering with a host of nearby agencies; locally, Homeward Pikes Peak director Bob Holmes will be coordinating referrals. Residents will be offered a van at least three times a week from major cities to Fort Lyon. If they decide to drop out of the program, they'll be offered a ride back.

"This program could have a great impact on our community if individuals in need will just give it a chance," Holmes writes in an email to the Independent.

He's not the only one who's excited. At the Springs meeting, Ginsburg asked how many service providers had clients they'd like to refer; around 15 hands shot up.

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