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Last resort

Fort Lyon has ignored assumptions about homeless addicts — and that seems to be working



From Colorado Springs, I take Interstate 25 south to Pueblo, then Highway 50 east through Las Animas. This is prairie country, interrupted only by aging farms, gray-wood barns, derelict cars, agricultural equipment, the occasional melon stand and, here and there, a sunbaked town where the newest buildings appear to be mid-century. Fowler. Manzanola. Rocky Ford. La Junta.

After a 2½-hour drive, I finally cruise up County Road 15, lined by small aging ranch homes, large trees and black-eyed Susans. The pale blue sky stretches for miles, and the air is thick with small yellow butterflies that leave puffs of dust when they hit my windshield.

When it seems the road should end, it forks. The iron gate of a huge stone entryway sits open, leading down a long, straight road lined with mature leafy trees. At its end, I arrive at a 550-acre campus: Fort Lyon.

Tall, stately buildings, most red brick, are arrayed along three sides of a courtyard the size of a football field. Forty-odd homes, some historic, most painted stark white, line the remaining side. Trees shade a lush green lawn.

Walking the stairs to the main building, through the giant legs of Greek columns, I'm met with a steady stream of people. One by one, Fort Lyon's tidy inhabitants turn to me, smile, and say hello. Confused about where to find the main office, I stop a bearded man in the hallway. He grins, eager to help someone he assumes to be a new resident, and leads me down a long hallway.

Leaning in, his eyes sparkling, he whispers, "You made the right choice."

This is the state's newest program for homeless people with addictions and mental health issues. Residents are allowed to stay for as little as 90 days and as long as two years. They come voluntarily and can leave if they like. Once they're ready to go, Fort Lyon staff help them find housing and a "supportive community" to continue their recovery.

The program is growing in phases. It will eventually house and treat up to 300 people. On this day, Sept. 3, its one-year anniversary, it's considered full with about 200 people.

It's a new model for the state, and one that came with big risks. In its first two years it will cost over $10 million, and it's probably too early for numbers to say for sure whether that was a smart bet. But the early signs look good.

In the 1980s, El Paso County was home to one of the last poor farms in the country. A poor farm is exactly what the name suggests: a piece of land, usually on the edge of the city, where those too impoverished to find a place of their own were allowed to live and work the fields, milk the cows, collect eggs from chickens.

The county's longest-lived poor farm was in the Bear Creek area, before it was taken over by development. There, the old were allowed to rest, the young did the heavy labor, and the farm turned a profit for its owner, the county.

By the time the poor farm closed, opinions about how best to help homeless people were changing. One of the most popular programs today is Housing First, which advises housing the homeless in their communities before trying to help them with underlying problems like addiction. Other programs provide permanent housing, too, often integrated into existing neighborhoods. Inpatient drug and alcohol treatment programs are usually intensive, structured, and located in cities. Commonly, they last just 30 days.

Fort Lyon seems to borrow from a lot of these newer models, and the program's executive director and co-creator, James Ginsburg, is quick to point out that Fort Lyon carefully follows best practices for addiction recovery. But Fort Lyon breaks the mold in many other ways.

Rather than keeping homeless people as close as possible to their communities, Fort Lyon ships them to the middle of nowhere. Rather than carefully planning every moment of their lives in an effort to harness their addictions, Fort Lyon lets its residents do pretty much whatever they want. Rather than having staff assign chores, residents choose how they'd like to contribute to keeping up the place. Rather than demanding the residents make a firm commitment to stay for a set period of time, people are allowed to decide when they're ready to go back to society. Fort Lyon even allows residents daily trips into Las Animas, to mill about and do as they wish.

At first glance, the results are astonishing. Fort Lyon is clean — the residents have remodeled and upgraded the aging buildings. No one is obviously drunk or high. And no one seems eager to leave.

They like this place. Some of them even say they love it.

Take Barton Crotty, 52. He hails from Denver, where he spent most of his life on the streets after running away at age 11 following the death of his parents. Addicted to coke and "cheap whiskey," Crotty says, he tried just about every program, but none worked. He wove his way in and out of prison for drunk-driving convictions.

He was in the first group of homeless addicts to come to Fort Lyon, and he's lived here longer than anywhere else in his adult life. While he gripes about the younger people entering the program, whom he feels aren't as serious about recovery, he speaks passionately about Fort Lyon. He often lapses and refers to himself as a staff member. And why not? He's helped remodel this place, a task he's taken great pride in. Overall, he says, Fort Lyon has worked for him.

"I think," he says, "this program here will be the rehab of the century."

Fort Lyon came together through a lot of cooperation. The state program offers mental and physical health care, addiction recovery services, and a whole host of other activities from arts and crafts to college courses to yoga. It is run by Denver-based nonprofit Colorado Coalition for the Homeless.

But residents are referred by a network of homeless service providers across the state. (Homeward Pikes Peak does the referrals for El Paso County.) Bent County serves as the property manager, and several partner agencies provide classes and services, including Otero Junior College, Lamar Community College, Southeast Health Group and Valley-Wide Health Systems, Inc.

There's plenty of room at Fort Lyon for all of this and more. The campus has a full gym, a movie theater, a library, computer rooms, a cafeteria, even a garden and chickens. Plans are underway to bring more programs here and to partner with local businesses to provide a variety of job training and entrepreneurial opportunities to residents.

Male residents usually sleep two to a room, while women get their own room. Each floor in the dorms has communal bathrooms, a kitchenette, and a TV room. Residents all have on-campus jobs suited to their talents and ambitions. Not all of them involve fixing up the campus; one resident opened a bike shop in his room. Another opened a barber shop.

Fort Lyon recently had funding approved for its second year, and is now a part of the [state?] Department of Local Affairs' annual base budget appropriation — meaning it won't need special approval in future years. Annie Bacci, the state's homeless programs manager, says Fort Lyon originally got $4 million in state money for fiscal year 2014 (from July 2013 through June 2014). This fiscal year, it received $6.02 million. The money comes from both the state's general fund and Colorado Housing Investment Funds (the state's share of the mortgage settlement funds from the housing bust).

While that may seem like a lot of money, Bacci says it will soon cost less than $15,000 a year to house a person at Fort Lyon. A study published by the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless in 2006 found the average cost to public systems was $42,239 a year for an individual chronically living on the streets.

The current incarnation of Fort Lyon opened in 1867 as a military outpost and stayed open until the late 1800s. In 1906, the complex was reopened by the Navy to serve as a tuberculosis sanitarium, and in the early 1920s was taken over by the organization that would become the Veterans Administration. In the 1930s, it began a long run as a VA neuropsychiatric facility. But the program closed in 2001 and the facility was turned over to the state, which ran it as a prison until 2011. When the state closed the prison, the area lost about 200 jobs.

Aware of the loss, Gov. John Hickenlooper worked with Las Animas town leaders to bring something new to the historic campus. Bill Long, Bent County commissioner, says the locals wanted to help veterans, the homeless and addicts — the people that had been served by Fort Lyon in some form or another for nearly 100 years.

"We weren't really bringing anything or anyone into the community that was something we hadn't experienced previously," Long says. "And it absolutely has not been an issue."

Ginsburg, the director, sits in his mauve office, with his two black and brown dogs sleeping on chairs. The smaller of the two snores.

Ginsburg is a Colorado native who has worked with the homeless for nearly 25 years, and with the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless for 14. Neatly dressed in casual clothes, his face framed with glasses and a goatee, he speaks with a calm, reassuring voice. Fort Lyon, he says, wasn't really modeled after anything. There's not another program like it in the country. This was something that he worked with the Coalition to design, based on his own experiences with the homeless over the years.

"It was a huge risk," he says. "I had no idea if anyone would come."

Hickenlooper charged Ginsburg and the Coalition with designing the program, a task that Ginsburg says is still underway. "We didn't want to create this rigid structure that you either fit into or you didn't," he says.

Tweaks are made as needed, and are often informed by a council of residents. For instance, the council has weighed in when the administration is considering kicking someone out for a violation. Ginsburg says those situations are treated on a case-by-case basis. Someone who uses, for instance, may be given a chance to go to an intensive 30-day detox and to return to Fort Lyon if they stay clean and sober. But, Ginsburg says, "If you're a threat to the safety of the community you generally are not going to be able to come back."

In its first year, Fort Lyon enrolled over 250 people (the average age is 47), which far exceeds the target of 200. The program has an attrition rate lower than the expected 30 percent. Of the people who left the program in the first year, Ginsburg says, 28 did so voluntarily, 11 involuntarily, one died, and 14 left and came back.

If someone leaves, it's hardly a problem to find someone to take the space. Women, for whom there are only 40 beds, wait over six months to get into Fort Lyon. Men usually wait six weeks to two months. Military veterans are given preference, and generally only wait 48 to 72 hours.

Ginsburg says he originally feared no one would want to leave their home community to come to Fort Lyon, even temporarily. Now he says, "A lot of people are saying, 'I don't want to go back to my community, there's nothing there.'"

He's had to work to find some people homes in other cities. Recently, a couple settled in Las Animas.

Another surprise: Ginsburg says despite the fact that the total staff here is less than 55 full-time people, maintenance staff included, there hasn't been much in the way of violence. A few people have threatened others, and been kicked out. Fort Lyon does random urine tests for drugs, and occasionally someone will come up positive, requiring administrators to decide what to do with them. But it's been peaceful here. Which is a relief, he says, because a lot is riding on the belief that the residents here will be good neighbors.

"You can imagine, it could go south in a hurry," he says. "We don't have the staff to micromanage, and it's not set up that way. This is not a prison. This is a neighborhood in Bent County."

Homeward Pikes Peak executive director Laura Fonner is responsible for referring El Paso County residents to Fort Lyon.

In some ways, it's an odd fit, given that Homeward also runs its own programs, including the local Housing First. Fonner says she likes Fort Lyon, but that doesn't mean she thinks it will replace Housing First and similar models. Different programs work for different people, she says. Some people want to stay in the city, or they need more structure. But for the right person, Fonner thinks Fort Lyon can be transformative.

"People have been staying longer than they planned [at Fort Lyon]," she says. "So I think that's a great sign that they feel like they're really getting something out of it."

Fort Lyon has its detractors. The Fort Lyon program was tacked onto a bill that set employment conditions for corrections officers, Colorado Senate Bill 13-210. The bill received plenty of "no" votes, though House Minority Leader Mark Waller, R-Colorado Springs, notes that the main part of the bill — correction officer salaries — inspired many of the dissenting votes, including his.

But Sen. Scott Renfroe, R-Greeley, was among the group that actually opposed the creation of Fort Lyon.

"I felt the money could have been spent better elsewhere," he says. "That's a lot of money to be spending on a program that hasn't been tested."

Aside from the money, some have also questioned Fort Lyon's programming. Larry Yonker is the CEO of local nonprofit Springs Rescue Mission, which runs an inpatient addiction recovery program for men that lasts 12 to 18 months. Participants are in classes or doing chores eight hours a day, five days a week. Yonker says he isn't very familiar with Fort Lyon's program. But he will say that he thinks structure — something Fort Lyon doesn't have much of — is what makes addiction recovery work.

"I think it's critical," he says. "Otherwise you're just holding them. It's a place where they can live. It's free housing."

And then there are those who think the idea of shipping homeless people from cities to the middle of nowhere is a little strange. Waller says he recalls some Democrats were concerned about that issue when SB 13-210 was being considered.

Ginsburg has responses for the critiques. On the money question, he says Fort Lyon has met or exceeded all the goals set for it. On the programming, he says he thinks less structure and more downtime is good because homeless people are coming from such frantic lives. Peace and quiet can do a lot for the recovery process, he says. It can help people rediscover who they are without drugs and alcohol.

"The alcoholic life is the only life they know," he says. "And so they never get a chance to see another life. And so this gives them a chance to see — and that's really the most miraculous part, the most rewarding part, is people's lights go on and they go, 'I could get a life. I had no idea. I had no idea I was this smart. I had no idea I was this creative. I had no idea I was this happy.'"

But that last criticism runs a bit deeper. Isn't it a little weird, even a little Big Brother-ish, to ship homeless people to a remote location?

Ginsburg smiles knowingly and says he's always known that issue would be uncomfortable. But he points out that no one is forced to come here. And besides, he says, how is this any different from how well-off people treat their addictions?

"Why do people go to Betty Ford?" he asks. "Why do people go to Hazelden?

"The greatest treatment centers in the world are away from the urban environment. That's how treatment has been set up."

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