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“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)

Eight years ago, Colorado repurposed an old Army fort surrounded by farm fields into a homeless recovery center, a peaceful campus on the plains, far from the gritty streets where its residents previously slept. 

More than 1,700 people have lived at Fort Lyon, about three hours from Denver in Las Animas, and about half of them left with housing. 

Now, as Denver and its suburbs are dotted with tents and parks have been shut down to clean up trash, plans are in the works for two more recovery campuses – both much closer to the epicenter of Colorado’s homelessness crisis. Gov. Jared Polis has tagged $45 million in his budget request to turn a former, now-empty youth corrections facility in the mostly vacant fields not far from Denver International Airport into a site that could house up to 350 people.  

Gov. Jared Polis has proposed turning the former Ridge View Youth Services Center, pictured on Nov. 8, 2021, near Watkins into a homeless recovery campus. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

The second recovery campus is planned for a to-be-determined location in the Denver area — whether that’s in the city proper or one of the suburbs is unknown. And judging by the “not-in-my-backyard” fights over Denver’s sanctioned tent camps during the last year, the metro area will at some point in the near future begin arguing over which neighborhood or suburb should host the project. 

For now, though, talks are in the works about what the recovery campus should include and a wish list is beginning to take shape: an all-encompassing residential center where people could receive medical detox, addiction treatment, job training and peer mentorship from folks who’ve experienced addiction and homelessness. Ideally, residents could stay as many months as they needed – up to two years even – and walk out with enough stability to work and pay rent. 

The governor has asked for $50 million for the Denver-area project, which, like the Adams-Arapahoe county campus, would be funded from one-time federal coronavirus aid in the American Rescue Plan. The plan is to have Denver’s Department of Housing Stability collaborate with various other city and county agencies and nonprofits. 

“This is exactly what our community is crying out for us to address,” said Britta Fisher, who heads the city’s Department of Housing Stability.

The key to getting people off the streets and into treatment is having space ready at the moment they’re ready to accept it – not two weeks later, or after telling them they need to visit multiple government offices to obtain a valid ID, she said. 

“If you’ve come to that decision, in that golden hour where you’ve decided ‘I need to do something about my addiction or about my mental health,’ and then you face a daunting gantlet to get services, … it’s very easy to see that one more barrier can set somebody back to say, ‘Ugh, I can’t do this right now,’” she said. 

Fisher points to the opioid crisis and the skyrocketing deaths from counterfeit opioid pills laced with fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that has caused 624 deaths in Colorado so far this year. While about 1% of Denver residents are homeless, 17% of overdoses last year were among people who are homeless. In 2020, 370 people in Denver died of drug overdoses and this year’s deaths are on track to climb even higher. 

The Denver area lacks enough medical detox options, as well as residential programs for people who need treatment and lack insurance or are on Medicaid. Right now, those who can get beds typically are allowed to stay for about 14 days, which is not nearly enough time to stabilize after potentially years of living on the streets, Fisher said. And out-patient programs that send people back to their tent or a shelter at night do not work, she said. 

“You can’t go home to the street and think that is going to be a great environment to support sobriety,” Fisher said. 

The homelessness and drug crisis is so huge that Fisher suspects Colorado would have no trouble filling up two new recovery campuses in addition to Fort Lyon. “At this point, we are in such a crisis that I think we need a lot of beds,” she said. “We need more beds, more infrastructure, more staffing to help with what we are facing as a community.”

Tents line the sidewalk next to St. John’s Cathedral in Denver’s Capitol Hill neighborhood on May 20, 2020. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

As for where this new center would go, Fisher said she’s still focused on the model and not the location. It’s possible, she said, that instead of one large campus, the recovery center ends up split among two or three locations – one with medical detox, another with job training, etc. She wants to hear ideas from the suburbs.

“There are lots of regional partners here and they may have opportunities that they may want to bring forward and say, ‘We think this place could make sense for this and here’s how and where,’” Fisher said. “I don’t think this is a Denver-only or even a Denver-led. I think this is really about the region coming together. It’s not anything any one city can necessarily pull off on their own. There are folks in every community that need these types of services.” 

“Each county needs to contribute”

Jefferson County, which has no homeless shelter, is working to stand up two “housing navigation” centers that would include shelter beds as well as permanent housing. Kelli Barker, who coordinates services for the homeless in JeffCo, is already facing a host of questions about where those navigation centers will go – and trying to balance the NIMBY sentiment with selecting neighborhoods that would qualify the projects for tax credits. 

“I have no easy solution,” she said. “Community engagement is really important for any site. It’s an urgent public need and ultimately it has to go somewhere.”

Barker wholeheartedly supports a homeless recovery campus for Denver and its suburbs. “This would be so huge for the metro area,” she said. “Each county needs to contribute to the solution.” 

Wherever it’s located, the recovery campus needs an array of services so “people can chart their own pathway” to recovery, Barker said. Some might need medical detoxification to begin. Others will need medication-assisted treatment, such as methadone or suboxone. Later, they will want community college courses and training in auto mechanics or culinary arts. Most of all, people will need the space and time to recover, she said. 

Living on the street or in shelters, people are in a constant state of crisis. “We know from the way our brains work that when you are in survival mode, wondering, ‘Where am I going to sleep tonight, where am I going to use the restroom,’ you are living minute to minute,” she said. “You can’t address any long-term goals. People use (drugs) to survive on the streets, to numb the pain of being in survival mode.” 

But when people who are homeless move into housing, with support from peers and therapists, their “nervous system relaxes” and they can start to “address the underlying trauma,” Barker said. 

A woman sits amid blankets and a sleeping bag as small groups gather in Civic Center Park on March 20, 2020, in downtown Denver. (Joe Mahoney, Special to the Colorado Sun/Colorado Trust)

The governor’s office said “all possibilities to bring this to fruition are still being considered,” and emphasized the need for a collaborative effort among various cities and counties. 

“In the wake of this pandemic, we have seen a rise in homelessness in many cities that need bigger, bolder solutions in partnership with local governments who ultimately must deliver results for their communities,” Polis’ spokesman Conor Cahill said in an email. “We look forward to discussing details in the coming months.”

Fort Lyon has 49% success in permanent housing

Fort Lyon sits on 552 acres in the Lower Arkansas Valley, where a grassy oval is surrounded by dorm-style living as well as homes that once housed Army officers. Last fiscal year, 390 people lived at Fort Lyon, before the pandemic caused the recovery campus – run by the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless – to take a break from admitting people from March-June 2020. 

Most of those 390 people came from Denver, Colorado Springs and Pueblo, and most returned to the Denver area, though some got jobs and housing in the community around Las Animas, according to an annual report from the Coalition for the Homeless. 

Of the 390, 49% left with permanent housing. The average stay lasted 11 months. 

A statewide referral network – including mental health centers, detox and substance abuse treatment clinics, the criminal justice system and the Coalition for the Homeless medical clinic – invites people to move to Fort Lyon. 

James Ginsburg, who ran Fort Lyon for its first 5½ years and now runs a nonprofit for the homeless in Lakewood, hopes to help develop plans for a Denver-area recovery campus. He has no doubt it would fill up – about 30 people each morning come to his nonprofit, called RecoveryWorks, for hot showers and food. The center, which also has 10 beds for people who are homeless and need acute medical care, spends each afternoon helping people apply for housing. 

The region is in major need of long-term, residential care to help people break the cycles of homelessness and addiction, he said. 

“People spend 40 years getting ill and it’s going to take longer than 30 days to get well,” Ginsburg said. “At the end of the day, people don’t want to self-destruct. But it’s the only life they’ve known.”

Ginsburg said he is hopeful that, especially after the way the pandemic exposed the depth of the homelessness crisis, that the public will support the homeless recovery campuses. He wants people to see that having a recovery center in the neighborhood is better than having people without homes sleeping in doorways and setting up tents along sidewalks. 

“Everybody says they want it, just not in their neighborhood,” he said. “We have to continue to articulate the truth. Ignoring it is not going to make it go away.”

To serve the city and the suburbs, a new Denver-area recovery center is likely to sit closer to homes and businesses than the campuses of Fort Lyon and the potential Adams-Arapahoe site, which is the former Ridge View Youth Services Center. 

Gov. Jared Polis speaks at Ridge View on Monday, Nov. 8, 2021, in Watkins. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

Ridge View, most recently a privately run program for teenage boys, is a 560-acre campus with seven living areas. The vast property has an industrial kitchen, an auto mechanic workshop, a football field and gymnasium. 

Funding for the two new recovery campuses is part of a $200 million package proposed by Polis that also includes a competitive grant program for local communities to build shelters and housing. 

Jennifer Brown writes about mental health, the child welfare system, the disability community and homelessness for The Colorado Sun. As a former Montana 4-H kid, she also loves writing about agriculture and ranching. Brown previously...