Fort Lyon treatment center offers homeless drug and alcohol treatment in Bent County, Colorado

Mar 16, 2017

Credit www.colorado.gov

On the eastern plains of Colorado is a rehab clinic for the homeless who are addicted to drugs and alcohol – an unusual site given that most such facilities are based in cities.

As Colorado Public Radio reports, the Fort Lyon Supportive Residential Community, located in Las Animas, Colo., is also unique in that most drug and alcohol treatment providers for the homeless push “housing first” programs.

The facility itself has its own storied past. A former military base with a history dating back to the Civil War, it was a psychiatric hospital for veterans until 2001 and then was used as a minimum security prison until it closed in 2011.

The rehab program now operated at the facility is run by the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless and was started with help from the state and Bent County.

55-year-old Mary Burton got clean at the Fort after living on the streets in Denver and struggling with crack cocaine for decades.

“I knew I didn’t have to drag my bags around anymore,” Burton said. “I knew I had a place to sleep, eat, shower safely, and everything. I was just overwhelmed.”

The campus doesn’t have a lot of rules except a very important one – no drugs or alcohol – which Burton and many of the other 225 residents say helps them kick their habits at their own pace.

Fort Lyon’s evaluations indicate that treatment at the facility is working, showing improvements in health and overall well-being among its residents. Legislators will soon get an independent evaluation of the programs efficacy. The preliminary findings, due in August, will shape the program’s future.

Gov. John Hickenlooper pushed the plan to transform the facility into a rehab clinic for the homeless addicted to drugs and alcohol, even though critics questioned whether the $5 million annual budget was justified by the then-unproven program. Hickenlooper used cash from a mortgage settlement to kick start the program. 

Residents of Fort Lyon can stay for two years, or longer if needed – a dramatic departure from the norm of only 30- to 90-day stays at most treatment facilities. 

James Ginsburg, Fort Lyon’s program director, said that ongoing treatment and the community surrounding it have created a safe environment.

But Ginsburg said fewer than half of the people who have been in the program have stuck with it.

While many residents credit their success to the flexibility offered by Fort Lyon, others say more structure would be helpful.

Still, Ginsburg said there are different ways to measure success – at one end of the continuum are people being off the street for a night and at the other end are people who complete the program go back to school, get jobs and live independently.

He said it costs about $20,000 a year to house each resident, compared to $47,000 per person to provide “reactive services” like detox, police and emergency room access.

The Colorado Legislature, however, wants concrete evidence that the program is worth the money required to keep it operating, especially in a year that it is considering budget cuts.  

In the spring, residents play softball on the spacious lawn between stately brick dorms and a row of former officer’s homes that date back to the mid-19th century. Pickup basketball games happen every Saturday afternoon. There’s a well-stocked library on campus, and an auditorium that shows redemption-focused films twice a week. The campus also has a health clinic, counseling and academic classes.

Many of the residents opt to relocate nearby Fort Lyon after completing the program, after adapting to rural life.

One such person is 57-year-old Richard Devlin, who kicked his alcohol and methamphetamine habits at the facility, and then moved to Las Animas instead of returning to Fort Collins.

“They wanted me to live here,” Devlin said. “I’m not going to say no to that. Somebody saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself.”

These days, he’s made friends with local farmers, city leaders and even the town cops.

“These are people I would have never hung around with,” Devlin said. “And now we’re going to church together. We’re having dinners together. This is really cool.”

For now, local residents are happy to have the Fort occupied — if not quite fully. Josh Gonzalez, who works at Thaxton’s, the grocery store in Las Animas, said business has nearly doubled in the last few years. Many of the new customers are Fort Lyon residents who ride their bicycles into town.

“Some are normal. Some are drunks,” Gonzalez said. “But they are all human beings just like us.”