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Colorado spends $4.7 million a year helping homeless people rehab from drug and alcohol abuse at Fort Lyon. Is it worth the cost?

Five-year audit of rural campus along the Arkansas River shows mixed results, setting the stage for a major battle in the statehouse over future funding

“The Fort,” as residents of Fort Lyon in Bent County call it, is centered around a grassy quad, shaded with leafy trees.(Colorado Coalition for the Homeless)
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LAS ANIMAS — The farther the white van got from Denver, away from the sirens and honking horns and closer to desolate stretches of two-lane highway through corn fields and melon farms, the more panicked Linda Fitzgerald became.

When the van pulled into Fort Lyon, a former Army fort and then tuberculosis sanitarium, she had already decided she was not staying.

“I will sleep tonight and tomorrow, I will find out how I can get out of here,” Fitzgerald told herself.

For the previous year and a half, she had lived in her car and had thought she could kill herself by drinking ridiculous amounts of vodka day after day. When that didn’t work, Fitzgerald made a plan to step in front of a train. But first, she stopped at her 90-year-old mother’s house to say goodbye, and somehow Fitzgerald’s sister and three grown children persuaded her to go to Fort Lyon.

“The Fort,” as its residents call it, was empty five years ago when the first white van of Denver’s homeless arrived to the vast flatlands of southeast Colorado. The Colorado Coalition for the Homeless invited 30 people to board that first day, though only 13 showed up at 21st and Champa streets downtown.

More than 1,200 have followed.

The transitional housing program for the homeless, on a college-like campus outside the tiny town of Las Animas, was controversial even before it opened. Colorado is spending millions of dollars annually on a program that some argue contradicts long-held beliefs on how best to treat people who are homeless and addicted to alcohol or drugs, the theory that recovery should happen “in vivo,” or in the environment where addicts already live.

Fort Lyon is the opposite: drive them three hours away, surround them with farmland along the Arkansas River, ask them to settle their minds enough to hear the mourning doves.  

Until now, evidence of the program’s success has been anecdotal, based on stories of life-changing intervention told by some of the formerly homeless. Lawmakers — including many who are skeptical — held off major debate until they could peruse results of an evaluation they ordered in 2016 that stretches back through five years of data.

The results are in, and they are neither that stunning nor distressing. Instead, supporters of the program fear, they are fodder for an intense fight at the Capitol about the future of the program, now funded through mid-2019.

“People are going to look at the Fort Lyon results and read what they want to read into the data, because it is very mixed,” said Cathy Alderman, vice president of public policy for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, which runs the program for the state division of housing. “We look at the results and see success and real progress because it’s our mission to get people off the streets, into recovery and stabilized in housing.”

Three-quarters of residents leave the Fort with housing

The five-year review found that 47 percent of Fort Lyon residents moved into permanent housing when they left the serene campus, where residence halls and small houses with earth-tone siding surround a grassy quad. An additional 29 percent left with other transitional housing, meaning 76 percent of residents did not return to the streets or shelters.

Yet not all the results were good news. Of the nearly 800 people who left Fort Lyon during the five-year period, only 38 percent actually completed the program, defined as meeting their sobriety or therapy goals and leaving with permanent housing.

Sen. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, was among those disappointed in that number. “I’m not pleased,” she said while reviewing the evaluation during a legislative audit committee hearing in August. “I’m concerned about the amount of money that we are investing and they are not being successful.”

A scene at Fort Lyon. (Provided by the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless)

Fort Lyon has cost $4.7 million per year, on average, to operate. Of that, an average of $3.5 million annually has come from the state general fund, while $1.2 million came from mortgage settlement money paid to the Colorado Attorney General’s Office and set aside for veterans’ housing and treatment programs.

“I just haven’t seen a measure or an indicator of great success,” said Sen. Tim Neville, a Littleton Republican and member of the legislative audit committee. The senator said he planned to talk to lawmakers who initially approved the program in 2013, before he was elected, but that he is concerned about whether it is worth the cost.

Keeping the program open because it has become “too big to fail,” Neville said, is not responsible.

Coalition for the Homeless officials, however, say the results are what they expected for a population with intense addiction issues.

The program costs about $18,800 per person, per year, according to the review. That compares to an estimated $50,000 in tax dollars per person who is homeless, based on various studies of emergency room and jail costs. The investment is “not only the smart thing to do but the right thing to do,” the Coalition’s Alderman said.

“But if you don’t believe that this type of investment is fiscally responsible and that leaving people on the streets to use expensive and inefficient emergency services is a better use of resources, you might read the results of the evaluation differently,” she said.

Public expenses per person decreased 33 percent on average in the first year after program enrollment, according to the review, which was done by a contractor hired by the state auditor. More specifically, costs dropped 9 percent for physical medical care, 34 percent for behavioral health care, 65 percent for shelter and government vouchers, and 80 percent in jail and probation in the year after enrollment.

However, auditors found the overall costs of residents increased in their second year after enrollment compared to before they arrived at Fort Lyon. The public costs increased an average of 11 percent per person in year two, mainly because of medical care and pharmacy expenses.

The reason is that people who left the Fort were more likely to seek medical care than they were when they were homeless, researchers reasoned.

Without this place, “I’d be dead”

Of the more than 1,200 people who have come to Fort Lyon, mostly from the streets and shelters of Denver and the Front Range, about 60 percent had mental illness. All of them had substance abuse issues, either related to alcohol or drugs or both.

“You took the biggest risk,” program director James Ginsburg said to cheering residents who gathered recently to celebrate the Fort’s five-year anniversary, eating hot dogs at picnic tables and listening to praise from Gov. John Hickenlooper. “You wanted to stop dying and start living. That’s why you got on that van.”

People who have spent decades trying to get Denver’s homeless into the kind of housing that would stick developed the program for people who need more than a 28-day addiction recovery center or an outpatient treatment plan.

“That doesn’t work very well if you are coming from underneath the Sixth Avenue bridge,” said John Parvensky, president of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless.

Many of the coalition’s Denver housing options follow the “housing first” initiative, the practice of providing a place to live in the hopes that addiction therapy and mental health treatment will follow once a person no longer has to worry about where to sleep or take a shower.

But the people invited to Fort Lyon, where residents can stay for up to three years, typically need more than an apartment and a case manager. “It solves your homelessness. It doesn’t necessarily help move you toward recovery,” Parvensky said.

The five-year review of the program found that residents reported “significant improvement” in levels of anxiety, depression and overall quality of life.

Fitzgerald, a nurse who raised three children but lived in fear and anxiety her whole life, didn’t take the first ride out of Las Animas as she had planned that first night. She’s been there one year and plans to stay for a second. Fitzgerald has learned to appreciate the silence, to walk the grounds every morning and listen to the birds. She takes a van into La Junta to see a therapist, and another to the grocery store so she can cook some of her own meals.

The environment, she said, is responsible for 50 percent of her progress.

Historic buildings line the Fort, including small homes that were once officers’ quarters. (Colorado Coalition for the Homeless)

Fitzgerald stayed because she knew she had nowhere else to go and knew that her children wouldn’t take her into their homes. She had held it together long enough to get her kids through college, but then fell apart, she said. She lost a beautiful home in Denver’s Park Hill neighborhood, then a lovely apartment.

“If it wasn’t for this place, I’d be dead,” she said, describing how she saw her children and grandchildren less and less often because she didn’t want them to see her as she was, drunk every day and living in her car and motels. “I feel for the first time in a long time that I can be happy.”

Her family visits her at Fort Lyon and recently brought her a television for her room. Fitzgerald, a nurse, hopes to get her car down to the Fort and find a part-time job in town.

She came because her family begged her, and she thought her only other option was suicide. “My kids were saying, ‘Momma, please.’”

Fort residents work at Bent County shops, on grounds crew

James Ginsburg and Phil Harrington, both long-time social workers who worked with Denver’s homeless, came up with the Fort Lyon treatment plan over coffee at The Market on Larimer Square. They wanted it to include recovery, but also education and job opportunities.

The two men, employees of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, live half their weeks in Denver and the other half at Fort Lyon. From the start, they’ve tried to learn what works best for residents.

In the first two weeks, for example, one formerly homeless man had set up a barbershop in his room to make money. Instead of shutting it down, James and Phil let him open a barbershop in one of the many empty spaces at the Fort. The resident-run shop is still there; the original barber runs his own hair-cutting operation in Denver, and he cuts Hickenlooper’s hair.

The Fort also has a bike repair shop, clothing stores full of donated skirts, pants and shoes, a sewing shop, a sweat lodge and yoga classes. Otero Junior College in La Junta set up a branch campus at Fort Lyon, where residents can study for a GED or take college courses. Job-training programs link residents with daily, temporary work, though many people get their own jobs in La Junta or Las Animas at the dollar stores, Dairy Queen and other businesses.

The Fort’s buildings surround an oval of bright green grass shaded by giant, leafy trees. When residents arrive, they live in dorms designed as hospital rooms with attached bathrooms. The once-sterile rooms now are filled with plants, colorful rugs and, in many cases, the residents’ dogs. Men share rooms but women each have their own, in keeping with “trauma-informed” practice for women who have often spent years living on the streets.

Residents who have been successful in the dorms later can move into one of the modest, neutral-colored houses, formerly officers’ quarters, that back to open farm fields at the edge of the Fort. Housemates each have their own bedroom, but share a kitchen and living room. Each has space for a garden, where, on a recent visit, zucchinis and tomatoes were nearly ripe.

David Chapman shares a house with two other men and a cat named Stupe, short for Stupid. On Wednesdays, he takes the “Walmart bus” into town to shop, but eats most of his meals in the Fort’s cafeteria. Breakfast is a buffet of bagels, yogurt and fruit. TV screens in the residence buildings list the daily menu for lunch and dinner: Frito chili pie, fried chicken, meatloaf and mashed potatoes.

Chapman, 53, was homeless for 20 years, living in parks and under bridges in various states from Florida to Colorado. “It was the drinking and the drugs that had me caught,” he said. “There are a lot of those 20 years I don’t remember.”

David Chapman, who lived in shelters and on the streets for 20 years, talks on the phone in his room at Fort Lyon. He plans to move into his own apartment this month. (Jennifer Brown, The Colorado Sun)

Chapman boarded a van to the Fort because, put simply, he was exhausted. He was tired of carting around his belongings, of looking for shelter space. His diabetes was out of control, and he felt sick and weak.

After two and a half years at the Fort, Chapman is moving out on his own this month, into a house in La Junta split into four apartments. Coalition for the Homeless staff helped him secure a housing voucher to help cover the rent. Chapman said he feels healthier than he has in years, mostly because he quit drinking but also because he’s been getting regular medical care at the Fort’s health clinic.

He has also reconnected with his family, taking two recent trips to see them on the East Coast. Chapman heard the relief in his son’s voice when he called to tell him he was living at the Fort and recalled him saying, “We were always ready for a phone call that you were dead.”

Bent County leaders always hoped the Fort would have another purpose

After it was a sanitarium for tuberculosis patients, the Fort became a Veterans Administration hospital and then a minimum-security prison. When the prison shut down in 2011, it erased about 200 jobs in Bent County and left an empty site Bent County commissioners were anxious to refill.

The proposal to repurpose the Fort as housing and treatment for the homeless narrowly passed the legislature in 2013. It was considered a pilot project by some lawmakers, one that would lose its funding without proof it was cost-effective.

Because of the site’s military history, the transitional housing program gives priority to veterans who are homeless. Almost 20 percent of residents so far are veterans, and the vast majority, about 80 percent, are men.

Bent County provides facility and grounds maintenance, and residents of the Fort work on the grounds crew. Their labor equates to 18 employees, whom the county would have to pay $840,000 annually, according to the review. Residents on the crew receive stipends, which cost the program about $55,000 per year.

The Fort has 32 employees, from case managers to kitchen staff. But Bent County estimates the economic impact of the program is much higher, reporting that repurposing the Fort generated 119 jobs and $10.3 million in financial activity in 2015-2016 in the county, which has upgraded water and sewer systems and remodeled 10 buildings on the campus. County leaders told auditors the county has seen an uptick in grocery and pharmacy sales since the program began and that incidents of drug use within the community have been rare.

Hickenlooper, on his recent visit to the Fort, told residents about a man he met along the river in Denver back when he was mayor and shadowing an outreach worker. “We can get you into housing,” Hickenlooper said he told the man, who got in the mayor’s face and replied, “I’m not cut out for that life. I’m not cut out for 9-to-5. I’m happier here.”

A year and a half later, as Hickenlooper stood in front of the Sheraton Hotel on the 16th Street Mall, the man walked up to him and introduced himself. “I was the guy who told you I was happier being under that bridge,” he said, according to Hickenlooper. “I was so wrong.”

To the residents gathered at Fort Lyon, some holding homemade signs thanking Hickenlooper for supporting the program, the governor mentioned the “real problems with the legislature” as his administration, in the end, won approval to repurpose the Fort for the homeless.

Hickenlooper made no promises about the program’s future, but made his own support clear.

“We want to give you a hand up — a hand up, not a handout,” he said.