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FORT LYON, Colo. — Darrell Valdez, Cindy Davis, John Ferentchak and Devonie Williams know what it’s like to live on the streets, to be addicted to alcohol and drugs, to struggle with hopelessness.
Now they’re living far from the city, with about 60 other homeless Coloradans on a sprawling campus of historic buildings near the Arkansas River. In previous incarnations, Fort Lyon was an Army fort, a tuberculosis sanatorium, a veterans’ hospital and a minimum-security prison.
In this latest chapter, these residents — along with state lawmakers, homeless advocates and Bent County officials — hope to put their lives on a different path.
The idea of moving homeless folks from city streets to an isolated rural stretch of the Great Plains some 200 miles southeast of Denver drew skepticism in the halls of the state Capitol earlier this year, narrowly escaping rejection in the state Legislature.
Critics say the vulnerable population will not know how to cope with the dramatic change in environment, leaving them lonely and adrift. Defenders, meanwhile, see the scheme as a way of removing homeless people from the easier temptations of city streets and giving them a clean shot at a break from their often troubled pasts.
The program in now in its third month, still too early to tell if the Fort Lyon Supportive Residential Community will succeed. But residents and workers are optimistic.
A quick start
James Ginsburg spent several years as director of four facilities housing 350 people for Denver’s Housing First program, run by the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, before becoming director of the Fort Lyon program. The coalition signed a contract to run Fort Lyon on the last Friday of August.
“We brought 13 down on that Tuesday,” he said.
Though planning began shortly after a law funding the program was signed in late May, there wasn’t much time to reopen buildings closed for almost two years, hire staff and plan how to serve clients coming from the streets.
Originally, Ginsburg planned that each client would spend up to three months getting oriented and working on a treatment plan, followed by integrating work around Fort Lyon, then educational offerings.
“Within a week or two, most of the residents were ready to get to work and get going,” he said.
I came here to regroup. I was kind of slipping away ... I definitely have been rethinking my actions, and I think I have a plan.
Darrell Valdez, 52, was one of the first through the doors, arriving from Denver.
“I’ve been on the streets for about two years,” he said. “I put myself there. My main problem was I had a real serious drinking problem.”
Even when he got day-labor jobs, “I made enough money every day to buy myself a bottle of booze and some cigarettes.”
He signed up for treatment programs a couple of times but always “chickened out,” he said.
Within days of arriving, Valdez started cleaning the gymnasium every morning. He has set up a barbershop in the building where male residents live, cutting other residents’ hair.
“I love it. It’s peaceful,” he said. “It’s nice to wake up in the morning and you don’t even hear a car go by.”
A rural retreat
The idea at Fort Lyon is to take homeless people like Valdez, who struggle with addiction, mental illnesses or both, and offer them a place to rehabilitate away from the lures of the street.
“We take the substance off the table,” Ginsburg said. “It’s not an option here.”
There are mandatory recovery meetings daily and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings after dinner.
The program also requires residents to participate in jobs around the facility — from helping with maintenance to working in the kitchen — and will offer classes from nearby two-year colleges.
Homeless clients sign up for stints at Fort Lyon ranging from 90 days to two years, depending on their circumstances.
John Ferentchak also arrived on the first day and plans to leave this month. He’ll return to an apartment in Denver that’s part of the Housing First initiative.
“I came here to regroup,” he said. “I was kind of slipping away ... I definitely have been rethinking my actions, and I think I have a plan.”
Other alcohol-rehabilitation programs seemed more like boot camp, Ferentchak said, while Fort Lyon offers a slower pace and a sense of serenity. He notes it’s a 10-minute walk to a wildlife preserve where he can fish.
“It’s been very reinvigorating,” he said.
The adjustment has been tougher for 40-year-old Devonie Williams, who lived on Denver’s streets for three years after fleeing an abusive relationship in Albuquerque, N.M., via the first Greyhound bus out of town.
“I still have a hard time falling asleep, even though I’m inside and I’m safe,” she said. “It’s hard getting used to after being on the street for so long, having one eye open.”
Williams wants to explore her interest in art, take some classes and return to Denver.
“I think I have a little bit of time to do something worthwhile,” she said. “I love Denver. I know I could do so much in Denver. There’s so much opportunity there.”
There’s plenty of opportunity for more placements at Fort Lyon. More than 13,500 Coloradans are homeless, according to a census taken by the coalition in January.
But Fort Lyon won’t work for everyone, Ginsburg admitted.
Already five people have left the program, though one returned. Some are deciding they want to stay longer than they originally planned.
A devoted community
Bill Long’s grandfather worked as a baker at Fort Lyon in the 1920s, when it made the transition from TB sanatorium for Navy veterans to a full-fledged veterans’ hospital. His parents worked there too. They’re buried in the nearby military cemetery.
“I actually lived there until I was 7 years old,” said Long, chairman of the Bent County Commission.
In 2001 the Department of Veterans Affairs closed Fort Lyon, which primarily served veterans with mental disorders. That put about 500 people out of work, Long said. The state of Colorado took over the property for a minimum-security prison, employing about 200 people, but budget cuts closed it in 2011.
“It was somewhat devastating,” Long said.
About 5,800 people lived in Bent County in 2012, down from 6,500 in 2010. In an effort to bring back jobs and residents, Long helped spearhead a group that considered ways to use Fort Lyon for a new purpose.
It came up with housing and rehabilitating the homeless.
“This county wants to serve the homeless population,” Ginsburg said. “It really came from Bent County ... This is sort of what they feel like is their people.”
The state estimates it costs $17,600 a year to house a person at Fort Lyon, versus $43,240 a year on the street, where medical care and detox are more expensive. The program will cost $3 million to $4 million a year.
Bent County hired about 10 people to help maintain the property, which comprises a variety of buildings and more than 500 acres. The homeless coalition has hired 17 people, with more jobs advertised. Ultimately, up to 300 homeless people could live there, with a staff-to-client ratio of about 1 to 6.
Gil Boutwell, 43, quit his job managing a chain restaurant in La Junta to become a peer mentor at Fort Lyon. He can empathize with the struggles that residents are going through.
“When I was a kid, I was homeless for two years,” he said. “I went to prison because of my drug and alcohol use.”
He’s been clean for seven years and sees his new job as a bit of penance.
While Fort Lyon is offering jobs, the community is giving too. Donations of clothes, shoes and a variety of goods will soon be sold to residents in a retail shop set up and run by residents.
Recently, Ginsburg said, “somebody came along and donated 14 chicks.” Now Otero Junior College is planning an agricultural science project at Fort Lyon.
“We really had tabled any ag thing until these chickens came,” Ginsburg said.
Fort Lyon’s future
“Death protocol” is on the list on Ginsburg’s office whiteboard.
No one has died yet at Fort Lyon, but he anticipates it will happen. He said he discovered several deceased residents in the Housing First program, and procedures need to be in place when it happens.
The average age at death for homeless people is about 49, Ginsburg said. That’s 30 years younger than the average in the U.S.
“There’s a subpopulation of homeless … that simply are not recovering,” he said. “They are not recovering in housing, and they are not recovering on the streets.
“I think they feel like it’s their last shot.”
That may be true for Cindy Davis, 47, who had been living on the streets in Aurora, taking methamphetamine, flying a sign seeking money.
“I want to live. I’m tired of just existing,” she said. “Everyone’s here because they want to be here.”
This story has been updated to correct the reference to Fort Lyon's location in relation to Denver. It is southeast of the city.