LAS ANIMAS — D.J. Poole’s rock bottom was a sleeping bag on a cold Denver sidewalk.
Years of chasing heroin and meth had landed him outside, alone. He had been kicked out of a Denver Rescue Mission rehab program, which meant he couldn’t sleep there anymore. Poole, 33, had spent time in jail, and had burned so many bridges he figured there was no one left to help him.
Then, during another round of detox, an addiction counselor suggested that Poole sign up for Fort Lyon.
He had heard of it before, the homeless recovery campus far from the city, but he had never been ready to go. This time Poole was willing, so he boarded a van for the three-hour drive to southeastern Colorado, past the cornfields, pumpkin patches and feed stores of the plains.
That was two months ago.
Now Poole is close to getting his GED, and in four more months, when he’s progressed enough in his recovery, he wants to work at a hog farm not far from the old Army fort outside of Las Animas. And after his Fort Lyon stay, which can last for up to two years, he plans to enlist in the Army.
For now, Poole is grateful that he’s able to live for free in a place where he can shower, eat healthy meals and read his Louis L’Amour novels on a comfortable bed. He’s looking forward to an upcoming visit from his mom and aunt, he said last week as he sat on his twin bed while his roommate brewed a tiny pot of coffee. He hasn’t seen them in nearly a year.
“A person has to be ready to quit or it isn’t going to work,” Poole said. “Being here, I’ve been able to repair some bridges and some are still burnt, but I’ve got to focus on me and better my life in order to fix that.”
Poole’s odds are decent, now that he’s at Fort Lyon, a state-funded recovery campus run by the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless that took in its first residents 10 years ago. Data from the past decade shows that 58% of people leaving Fort Lyon move into permanent or temporary housing.
Lawmakers this year approved a budget increase for the fort for the first time in 10 years, upping the amount by $750,000 to an annual total of $5.6 million. The cost breaks down to $18,800 per person, per year — far less than the estimated $45,900 in taxpayer spending on a person who is homeless and using shelters, detox centers and hospital emergency departments.
“A decade ago, there was initial opposition,” Colorado Coalition for the Homeless president Britta Fisher told a crowd gathered at the fort to celebrate its 10th birthday last week. “And there still are those today who do not have compassion for the difficulties faced by those with the medical condition of a substance use disorder or the experience of homelessness. But the success of this program speaks for itself.”
Fort Lyon, which also has been a jail and a neuropsychiatric hospital in its past lives, has been deemed successful enough that Gov. Jared Polis and state lawmakers want to replicate it.
Colorado to open more recovery campuses, “encampment resolution program”
The Colorado Department of Local Affairs is developing a master plan for a second homeless recovery campus at a former juvenile detention center in Watkins, northeast of Denver.
The Ridge View Transitional Housing Program, funded by $45 million in federal pandemic relief funds, will house 195 people at a time who will receive substance abuse treatment, job training and help finding housing. Renovations are scheduled to begin in 2024.
The scope of the state plan to get people out of homeless encampments is broader, however.
The department, spending “once-in-a-generation” federal relief money, is funding five new sites around Denver that will provide shelter and transitional housing, substance abuse and mental health treatment, and basic needs including showers, restrooms and laundry. The department recently awarded $52 million to five cities and counties.
The massive plan includes $24 million to the city of Denver, which will open an “encampment resolution program” that will include 290 supportive housing units. The Denver homeless “navigation campus” will have three physical locations, so far undisclosed, that will provide shelter beds and transitional housing.
Aurora was awarded $15 million to build a homeless recovery campus that will include shelter beds as well as safe parking lots. The campus, expected to open in 2025 on land the city already owns, will have up to 300 transitional housing beds, 200 emergency shelter beds, 50 pallet shelters and 40 parking spaces.
Lakewood will get $9 million to open a homeless navigation campus, which will have up to 150 shelter beds and provide services from the housing and treatment program RecoveryWorks. Jefferson County currently has no year-round shelter beds.
Bridge House, which will renovate a building in Englewood to create 20 overnight beds plus a Ready to Work program, received $1.6 million. And the city of Boulder received $1.2 million to create a daytime shelter primarily for people who sleep outside and have been homeless for years.
State officials tie the ambitious plans to the success of Fort Lyon, which in the past decade has had 2,218 residents. When it opened in 2013, just 16% of people left for housing. This year, 40% left for permanent housing and 18% left with temporary housing or for a long-term care facility.
“It’s because of the success of Fort Lyon that there are new properties, that there are new efforts,” said Alison George, director of housing at the Department of Local Affairs. “There will be new support that will serve even more people.”
The 58% housing success rate after 10 years of Fort Lyon is lower than the 76% reported after the first five years. And even with 76% of people going into housing in 2018, state lawmakers were questioning whether the numbers justified keeping it open.
The five-year review found that 47% of Fort Lyon residents moved into permanent housing, with 29% leaving for temporary housing.
What’s changed in the past five years is an affordable housing and homelessness crisis that Denver, its suburbs and other cities across the state have not seen before. The latest count found more than 9,000 people were sleeping outside or in shelters in the seven-county Denver area.
The pandemic, too, stifled some of Fort Lyon’s success, in part because new housing placements stalled, according to the Coalition for the Homeless.
“Almost like a college campus”
Kat Navarich isn’t stretching it when she says Fort Lyon saved her life.
She was living on the streets, often sleeping in the doorway of a glass office building not far from the neon “Jesus Saves” sign at the Denver Rescue Mission. On snowy nights, she and her dog, Tramp, cuddled to keep warm. Every day, she looked for meth and alcohol, hauling Tramp around in a red wagon as he got older and struggled to walk on ice.
A woman Navarich met at the Samaritan House shelter offered her a bedroom in her house, and Navarich got on the waiting list for Fort Lyon. But she almost didn’t make it there. The woman returned home to find Navarich, then 56, nearly dead in the bathroom, a needle still dangling from her arm.
Navarich was rushed to Denver Health, and after she recovered, a van showed up to drive her to Fort Lyon. “They poured me into that van,” she said. “They saved my bed for me.”
She couldn’t believe how long the drive took, away from the city and across the plains. The closer she got, the more Navarich figured it was a “conspiracy,” a government plan to run experiments on her. When she saw the gates of the old Army fort, she thought it looked like a prison.
“But then, this right here, was what I saw,” said Navarich, pointing toward the grassy center of the peaceful campus, where giant leafy trees provided shade on a warm October day. “It looked almost like a college campus.”
Navarich stayed for 18 months, and has been sober for six years, proudly showing off the golden sobriety chip she carries with her. She moved into an apartment in Las Animas that accepted her housing voucher, choosing not to return to the city and the people who sold her drugs. She’s now the sponsor for 10 women who are trying to stay clean.
Her beloved Tramp, one of the first service dogs allowed to live at Fort Lyon, died a couple of years ago. She has another dog, now, a gift from her friends who brought her to the local animal shelter one Christmas and urged her to pick out a dog that could play in the yard outside of her apartment.
It didn’t take Navarich long to find the perfect one.
The Rottweiler’s name was Lady, and she was born the same day Navarich got sober.
“They finally got me”
Fort Lyon began with a van full of people bused from the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless in downtown Denver to the middle-of-nowhere campus surrounded by farmland. The state investment was controversial, and many questioned whether it was best to treat people for addiction in their home environments, rather than ship them off to the country.
In that first year, residents were given three strikes — meaning they could relapse three times on drugs or alcohol before they were kicked out of the program. But residents complained, saying that giving that many chances was dangerous.
Now the fort has a zero-tolerance policy on using drugs, said Lisa Trigilio, who has been director of Fort Lyon since 2020. The curly-haired woman, who goes nowhere without her Yorkie rescue named Rily, lived in Las Animas as a child, raised her kids in California, and then moved back to southeastern Colorado several years ago, to nearby La Junta.
Trigilio is one of the fort’s 50 employees, 99% of whom are from the Arkansas Valley or are graduates of the Fort Lyon program, according to the fort’s 10-year report.
Fort Lyon has about 180 residents now, not close to its 250 capacity. It’s still building back from the pandemic, when the campus remained open but did not accept any new people for several months.
Residents can take classes at Lamar Community College and Otero Junior College, and the campus grows a pumpkin crop and gives them away to kids at an on-site pumpkin patch. Besides farming, residents can learn skills in the bike shop and wood shop.
About one-third of Fort Lyon residents are from Denver, with the rest coming from counties across the state.
Residents must arrive sober, which means many are referred by detox programs. Only people with substance use disorders and who are homeless or about to lose their housing are accepted. Some come because they are on probation or on parole, but they have to want to come, Trigilio said.
“Recovery is not going to happen because someone else needs you to recover,” she said. “It has to come from the heart.”
Victor Ibarra, who lived in abandoned buildings in Pueblo, ended up at Fort Lyon because he told a judge he needed help.
“They finally got me — I had 22 warrants,” he said, eating a barbecue sandwich at a table outside the building where he now attends recovery meetings. “I couldn’t do it on the streets anymore. I was stealing. I was in gangs and drugs, and it really took me nowhere.”
Ibarra, 29, went from court to a rehab center for detox last fall, then arrived at Fort Lyon in December. He’s been sober for 13 months, plays on the Fort Lyon volleyball and softball teams, and works part time at a mechanic shop in Las Animas. A former Fort Lyon resident who now lives in Las Animas drives Ibarra to the shop.
When he arrived at the fort, Ibarra had no ID, no birth certificate and no driver’s license. He’s working toward his GED, and hoping to regain the trust of his family, including his three children. His mother crocheted the bright yellow blanket that’s spread across the bed in his room, where a tiny fan sits on the windowsill and his tennis shoes are lined up along the wall.
Ibarra said he’s not the same person he was when he was using heroin and fentanyl, but some of his relatives need more time to believe he’s changed. “I understand where they’re coming from,” he said. “It kind of hurts me, but I mean, I gotta take responsibility for my actions that I chose.”