- Becky Munson, 48
Becky Munson, 48
Becky Munson is agile in her wheelchair, using her hands and left foot to steer down the long hallway from the lunchroom. Talking and laughing in her gravelly voice, she exits through the front doors and pauses to indicate that I should take the stairs. "I come down this ramp pretty fast," she warns.
Things are going well for Munson these days. She's been sober for the six months since she arrived at Fort Lyon, no small achievement for someone who's been an alcoholic since she was a teenager. She's getting treatment for her cirrhosis and hepatitis C, therapy for her PTSD and low self-esteem, and she has a safe place to sleep where she doesn't have to worry that someone will steal her wheelchair or prosthetic.
Munson wasn't born with disabilities. About six years ago, she was sleeping on the streets in Colorado Springs, near Eighth and Cimarron. It was a cold winter night and she was drunk. Other homeless people needed amputations due to frostbite that year, too, but Munson says hers were the worst. She had already lost half of her right foot to frostbite the year before, which made her susceptible to getting it again. This time, she lost her right leg below the knee and half of her left foot.
The amputation on the left foot, she says, is painful, and with no toes she couldn't balance even if she tried to walk. The right leg is less uncomfortable, but she says her prosthetic, provided by Medicaid, is "a glorified stick."
"You know that girl on So You Think You Can Dance? or whatever, with the prosthetics?" she asks, clutching her cigarette. "Have you seen that? I would like to see her try that with this particular prosthetic leg on ... If Kmart made a prosthetic leg, it would probably be better than this one."
Originally from Chicago, Munson has lived in Colorado for 21 years, mostly in Colorado Springs. Throughout her life, she's been in and out of Alcoholics Anonymous, but she kept a job and a roof over her head until about eight years ago.
"I think it was a choice," she says of becoming homeless. "I am an alcoholic, all right. I used to be a dog groomer and I got burnt out on that. Actually, I fell in love with this guy, he calls himself 'Boxcar.' Now that I'm sober, I'm like, what is the matter with you?"
She laughs heartily.
"But anyway, I was incredibly burned out grooming dogs, and I am an alcoholic. I quit my job, went on vacation, I guess, and decided to start wearing camouflage and hide behind a tree with a bottle of vodka."
Alcoholism runs in Munson's family. She says she tried 13 detox programs before coming to Fort Lyon. This, she adds, feels like it's her last chance. Her body can't handle the abuse any more, and the streets aren't safe.
"The main reason I came here is for one, I cannot camp outside any more, there's no way. I can't defend myself. I never camped alone. But unless I had a gun, I would not be able to protect myself out there. And a lot of creepy things happen in Colorado Springs, you know. It's getting pretty bad."
Munson actually has a Section 8 apartment waiting for her in the Springs — her application was recently approved after years of waiting. But she plans to stay here another six months if she can. She says she doesn't ever really want to leave. She feels safe, for the first time in a long time, and she likes how friendly everyone is.
"I think it's a part of the aura here. It's working. I think this place is working."
- Marc Smith, 39
Marc Smith, 39
Aside from a brief fascination with the gangsta lifestyle as a teenager and a fondness for drinking with the boys, nothing in Marc Smith's life had ever really gone wrong.
Raised in Cleveland by his police officer father and clerical worker mother, Smith and his sister had everything the American middle class had to offer. Family vacations in the summer. Church on Sunday. Structure. Discipline. Love.
In 1993, when he was 18 and gangs were big, Smith was briefly drawn in. He liked the music, the popularity, the girls — he even got "thug life" tattooed on his arm. But his father intervened and soon Smith was in the Army.
In the service, he went to Korea, Germany and Bosnia, thankfully never serving in combat roles. In Germany, he met his wife, also an active-duty soldier. They married in 2001, had a son in 2004, were stationed in Colorado Springs in 2006 and immediately bought a house. Their daughter arrived in 2008.
Looking back at his old performance evaluations, Smith says he realizes just how well things were going. He was a model soldier, a poster boy for the Army. And then, in 2009, he tried methamphetamine for the first time. And that was the end of his luck.
It began with Smith's wife, who had been using meth behind his back with a family friend. Smith says he discovered it and told her to avoid it, not fully understanding what it was. Later, at a party, he caught her using it anyway.
"I said, 'Well, let me try it,'" Smith recalls. Before long, he was using before he reported for duty.
"There were times I'd be paranoid, like everyone can tell," he remembers. "That would be one breath, and then the next breath, 'I'm getting away with it.' Because I actually was using for about two years in the military before they caught on, so I [attribute] that to dumb luck or something. I just, you know, all my life things have just worked out for me. I've just been blessed and things have always worked out.
"So I never imagined at 17 years [of service] that I'd get kicked out. That never even crossed my mind as an option. So just delusions of the drug or my cockiness."
He did get kicked out. He lost his house. And then he and his wife also lost rental homes for lack of payment. Last October came the final straw: The Department of Human Services took the children. They stayed in foster care for a while before being sent to Cleveland to be with Smith's parents, where they still live.
"I don't blame the military or the Army at all," Smith says now. "They did exactly what I would have done if I were my soldier."
Smith says that once he realized just how far his life had spiraled out of control, he tried several outpatient treatment programs, but they didn't work. He came to Fort Lyon seven months ago, and says the program is working for him — he's finally come to realize that he gave away the good life that he had through his own bad choices. And he says he's going to work to make up for those choices as best he can.
He's in school, learning to be a community health worker, since he lost his Army retirement. He's started a computer repair business and launched his own website, all from Fort Lyon. Smith says he plans to stay here at least another year. He just wants to be sure he's ready to leave, and that he has job skills and some savings before returning to his children in Cleveland.
He says he never really explained to the children what happened. But he's sure he'll have to at some point. He hasn't heard from his wife in two months; she was still using and living on the streets the last time they spoke. He says he's had to learn to let go, and accept that he can't control her actions. But he worries for his kids.
"'Where's Mommy?' is going to pop up," he says. "So that's my biggest fear. And her drug of choice is really easy to OD on it. So that's like, worst-case scenario, that I have to explain that whole thing to the children. So, I just pray that things will work out in my children's best interest."
- Tiffany Mesco, 27
Tiffany Mesco, 27
Like most young mothers, Tiffany Mesco is ready with her smartphone.
"That's my daughter," she says, her fingers swiping the screen to reveal a photo of a 4-year-old beaming up at the camera.
Another swipe and we're looking at her 8-year-old son. Another, and her boyfriend, whom she met on the streets, is smiling back at us.
Mesco lost the children to the Department of Human Services 2½ years ago. The boy is in Denver now, in a mental health program for kids. The little girl lives with Mesco's mother and boyfriend in the Springs.
More than anything, Mesco wants to get back to the children. But since she's on probation for three felony cases, and outpatient rehab wasn't working for her, the courts ordered Mesco to spend 90 days in inpatient rehab. She chose Fort Lyon, and she's one month in. She says she loves it here — goes so far as to call it "salvation" — but she says she'll be ready to leave in two months.
"The way I look at it is, I had to get away from the Springs to get away from the dope," she says. "That's what I needed, was to get away, and get some coping skills, and just get my balance back ... Being a mother with an addiction is hard, especially when you have depression and your son also has problems himself. You didn't know how to handle it, and so I ran, basically."
An only child, Mesco says her addiction makes her the "black sheep" of an otherwise normal family. She started using methamphetamine at 15, while hanging out with kids at an east-side trailer park in the Springs. She's been on and off with the drug ever since, and her personality still bears some of the trademark hyperactivity. When she moves, she's quick on her feet, and when she's sitting, her fingers are always busy, either fidgeting or drawing her e-cigarette to her lips for a drag. At 27, Mesco has been addicted to meth for almost half her life, and her entire adult life.
The addiction was so bad that it took several days at Fort Lyon before she felt a strange pain near her belly and was rushed to the emergency room. She was ushered into surgery, where 21 stones were removed from her gall bladder. The doctor told her the organ would have burst within the week without surgery. Mesco had been too messed up to even notice the problem before.
Yet she insists that before DHS took her children, she was good at keeping it together, saying she was "a damn good mother" to her son and daughter, both of whom have autism. She was turned in to DHS by a friend and fellow user, and she's still angry about it.
After the children were taken, things fell apart. She lived on the streets near South Nevada Avenue last winter, using with her boyfriend, who she says has since quit.
Mesco says she still remembers who she was without meth and she thinks she can finally be that person again.
"I've heard that most of the [other rehabs] tear you down to build you back up," she says. "And that's not right. This place lets you be who you are and you do your own program here, basically."
Besides, she says, she has those children to think about.
"I just want to go back to where I can be there for them," she says, "because I love my kids with all my heart."
- Charlene Pike, 59
Charlene Pike, 59
If addictions have deep roots, then Charlene Pike's go back to when she and her twin sister were small. The youngest of nine kids, both born 90 percent deaf, the little girls were physically abused in their home, Pike says.
"I used to remember just hiding under the bed with her," Pike says. "It just seems like I've been hiding for my entire life. And then, I wanted a big, bad guy that I figured would take care of me. And that didn't work out the way I thought."
Here's how it worked out specifically, she says: Him on top of her, yelling, "Do you want to die?" Her scared, and screaming. And then, just like that, he reached into her mouth and pulled out the bottom row of her teeth. She was so beat up by the end of it that she was unrecognizable.
He went to prison for attempted murder, and she moved from her home in Cripple Creek to the battered women's shelter in Colorado Springs. She stayed there nine months, then moved in with a new boyfriend so she could drink. When that didn't work out, she was out on the streets, living in camps with boyfriends and others in the Springs. She was there for a little over three years.
"I really didn't drink much as a kid," she says. "I really didn't start drinking until I was way older, like 30 years old."
When she was younger, Pike was married happily, and the union produced four children. But when she was 28, her husband died of cancer, leaving her with a family to raise alone. She says she rose to the challenge, putting herself through college classes and scoring a job with the state.
"My main concern was them, and getting them raised," she says of her children.
But once they were older, she began drinking heavily, and then she began doing cocaine. And that began a gradual downward spiral for the next 15 to 20 years, leading to job loss, the abusive relationship and homelessness.
Pike tried other programs; she even received assistance to get an apartment in the Springs. But she kept using — her coke dealer lived two doors down from her — and she was well on her way to getting booted from her apartment when she agreed to enroll in Fort Lyon. She planned to stay 90 days. That was six months ago.
She says now that she'll stay at least a year. She had to give up her apartment to do that, but she says it was worth it.
Pike is very active in Fort Lyon classes, from arts to writing for the newsletter to yoga. She's attending college courses and says she'd like to continue after she leaves the program and get a four-year degree. She hopes one day to be a nonprofit administrator, saying her own disability has inspired her to want to help others.
But she says the biggest gift of Fort Lyon has simply been time to think.
"I think being here, with the length of time, you're able to stop and see actually how scary it was out there ... I'm probably pretty lucky."