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Closed Colorado Prison Converted into Homeless Program

Closed Colorado Prison Converted into Homeless Program

by David Reutter

Nearly two years after it opened on September 3, 2013, supporters of Fort Lyon, a former Colorado prison-turned-homeless facility, say it’s too soon to call the program administered by the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless a success. But officials say there is growing support for the sprawling campus in extreme southeast Colorado that once housed minimum-security prisoners but now accommodates more than 200 men and women who previously lived on the streets.

Fort Lyon, a former frontier fortress, was a veterans hospital for about 80 years until 2001, when it became too expensive to operate. State officials converted it into a prison, but Governor John Hickenlooper ordered it closed in 2011 due to budget cuts. Amid a great deal of controversy, Fort Lyon was converted into a facility to house chronically homeless persons suffering from addictions they could not overcome in an urban environment.

The sprawling campus is remote, but in many ways idyllic: located on 552 acres, the former prison can house up to 775 people. The facility has 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 a chapel.

Unlike traditional “Housing First” programs, which require residents to live in their communities and leave in 90 days, Fort Lyon allows residents to stay up to two years, working in jobs on campus in return for credits they can use to purchase needed items. The facility also has a strict substance-free policy, another departure from the “Housing First” model.

“The Coalition’s mission is to create a lasting solution,” said James Ginsburg, Fort Lyon’s program director. “For a segment of the population who need to come out of the community, this is the solution.” Ginsburg said Fort Lyon residents each have a personalized recovery plan, and Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings are held on site. The facility boasts a walk-in health clinic and partners with nearby health care and mental health providers.

While the former prison has broad support in the community, according to Kim MacDonnell, the director of the Bent County Development Foundation, many questioned the reason behind its founding. When Hickenlooper closed the prison, it was supposed to save the state about $6 million a year at a time when Colorado was more than $1 billion in debt. But the closing eliminated around 200 state jobs in Bent County. [See: PLN, April 2013, p.43]. By contrast, the homeless program will create about 60 jobs when at full capacity.

“Everybody in the community was upset that we lost Fort Lyon,” said Michael Diez, a city councilman in the nearby town of Las Animas. “There was a lot of revenue, and it went away.” Diez said he thinks the homeless program was designed, more than anything else, to fulfill a promise made by Governor Hickenlooper when he closed the prison to mitigate the loss by finding an alternative use for the facility.

That sentiment was echoed by Sam Tsemberis, director of Pathways to Housing and the man who developed the Housing First model and now runs the national nonprofit that promotes it. “You want to be in the neighborhood where you’ll be living, rather than outside where you won’t have to manage your temptations,” Tsemberis stated. “I don’t think anybody who’s serious about services thinks exporting people out of Denver to get them to treatment and bringing them back will work.”

Tsemberis agreed with critics who believe Fort Lyon was designed to solve a political problem more than a homeless one. “They have been desperate to turn that acreage into something that employs people,” Tsemberis remarked. “So I don’t see on what basis you can argue, other than that it’s good for creating jobs for a town that was in economic hardship, that it would make sense.”

Joseph Parvensky, president of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, defended Fort Lyon’s remote location. “This is one of the few programs designed to serve in an environment away from areas where they have been trapped in addiction,” he said. “They can focus better on their lives.”

Fort Lyon cost $4 million to operate in the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2014. About $2.7 million was paid from Colorado’s general fund budget, while an additional $1.3 million came from the state’s share of a national fraud settlement with mortgage lenders. Pat Coyle, director of the Colorado Division of Housing, said that over time, some of the cost to the state will be reduced by federal grants and other funding sources.

Critics are not so sure. “To me, it is still government dollars going to keep something open that wasn’t needed,” complained state Sen. Scott Renfroe. “We have other facilities that help the homeless.”

Bent County Foundation Director MacDonnell said the homeless residents of Fort Lyon have had a positive impact on the local community.

“Nobody is drunk and belligerent,” he said. “There are no fights. There have been two who volunteered at our local museum. They attend our churches, and they have been actively involved in recovery groups that are up and down the valley.”

Fort Lyon is one of a number of prisons nationwide that have closed in recent years, some of which are being repurposed.