The van leaves the Stout Street Health Center in downtown Denver on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. Others climb aboard in Colorado Springs or Pueblo before the van heads east, into the vast, sparsely populated grasslands of the Lower Arkansas Valley.
The passengers are all referrals, vetted and pre-approved, like sailors signing on for a long voyage. They are supposed to have at least 72 hours of sobriety before they step into the van. Sometimes, though, there’s been just a little too much downtime between detox and the van, and a customer arrives glassy-eyed or staggering, synapses sputtering and breath like bug spray.
Driver Tony Tovrea doesn’t make a big fuss. As he sees it, anyone who’s made it onto the van to Fort Lyon has already taken that first step toward a commitment to getting clean. Only rarely has he turned someone down — like the guy a couple of weeks ago whose family was trying to drag and stuff him into the van over his loud protests. Tovrea had to tell them sorry, it doesn’t work that way. This is a voluntary program.
In the three years that Tovrea has been driving the van, he’s seen just about every sort of supplicant — sullen and resentful, frightened and shivering, exhausted and street-weary, numb and broken. These are not your florid-faced tipplers with a tendency to double down on the martinis at lunch or weekend warriors who lost their tech jobs because of a weakness for Bolivian marching powder. These are your hard-core dope fiends and boozehounds. The vast majority of Tovrea’s passengers have been living on the streets for the past year or more; many have been there for decades, ever since whatever family or friends they had left fled the tyranny of their addiction. More than half have some form of mental illness.
“Most of them are pretty beat up,” Tovrea observes. “They have a lot of other things going on — mental problems, trauma, on the verge of institutionalization. A great many of them have been using drugs and alcohol to self-medicate. In AA circles, this is what they call ‘those who can’t or won’t.’ They’ve blown through every stop sign, and this is kind of their last stop.”
The last stop lies 200 miles southeast of Denver, at the end of a one-mile spur road that happens to be the shortest state highway in Colorado. There, on a quiet, scenic, well-appointed 556-acre campus, tucked amid cottonwood trees a short walk from the Arkansas River, some of the state’s most troubled outcasts have been invited to make themselves at home — until they can find one of their own.
Situated halfway between La Junta and Lamar, Fort Lyon has seen duty as a military post, a veterans’ hospital and a state prison. This weekend marks its third anniversary in its current incarnation, as a supportive residential community for homeless addicts — the result of an unusual alliance between rural economic-development interests and the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. Its 200-plus residents stay for up to two years at the facility, working on their sobriety and health issues, helping out with the upkeep of the place, chasing a high-school diploma that might have vanished down a bottle years ago, taking business or computer classes at the local junior college, receiving vocational training and otherwise preparing for a transition to stable housing down the line — all at state expense.
The long-term program is unique, going against the grain of the thirty- or ninety-day rehab programs dictated by insurance companies as well as the prevailing approach to substance-abuse treatment among most homeless advocacy groups. “These are people who’ve been using for thirty or forty years,” notes Fort Lyon program director James Ginsburg. “Two years is a start.”
There’s no shortage of testimonials among Fort Lyon graduates, many of whom believe that the program truly saved their lives. “There’s nothing like Fort Lyon,” says Stacey, who spent seventeen months on the campus and now lives in supportive housing operated by CCH in Denver’s Clayton neighborhood. (Several residents interviewed for this article asked that only their first names be used.) “I would still be there if I could have stayed. It’s 500 acres of paradise.”
But there’s also no shortage of skepticism about the program among state lawmakers. Some believe that Fort Lyon is too remote and that the promised economic benefits to the local community are minimal. They have questioned how the program measures outcomes when many of its participants leave before the two-year maximum and are swallowed back up by the streets. And they have balked at the program’s $5 million annual budget, which works out to a cost per resident of more than $20,000 a year. Backers argue that the cost of doing nothing is even higher, since many of the Fort Lyon residents have a history of cycling through emergency rooms, jails, shelters and clinics at considerable public expense — costing an average of $43,000 a year, according to one state estimate.
“Yes, these folks are really expensive when they’re just on the street and utilizing jail and the emergency room as their health providers,” concedes state senator Pat Steadman. “But I’m not convinced that we’re getting our money’s worth from what we’re doing at Fort Lyon. I’m not convinced that even the people who come out showing short-term success are going to be able to maintain that. I don’t know that we’ve done anything to change the way we provide services to them when they come back.”
Steadman was one of the sponsors of a bill that passed last spring calling for an extensive independent evaluation of the Fort Lyon program, to be completed in 2018. Ginsburg says he’s confident that the data will show that the program is cost-effective. “There’s a belief system that maybe we shouldn’t spend so much on such a small population,” he says. “But we are already spending on them. They are getting services anyway, in jail and the ER and detox.”
In the meantime, Tovrea makes the journey to the eastern plains twice a week. On the return trip, he frequently takes people who have abruptly left the program. Not the successful graduates, who typically arrange other transport or even a U-Haul to move them to permanent housing, but people who’ve been asked to leave because they’ve been caught drinking or getting high, or people who’ve simply decided they’re not ready yet for what Fort Lyon offers. Some are angry and blaming others for their problems. Some are sheepish and defeated.
“I tell them we’ll still be here when they’re ready to do it,” Tovrea says. “We really underestimate the power and destructiveness of addiction in people’s lives. It’s a lethal lifestyle. The likelihood of someone changing their whole life is pretty limited.”
Over the past 150 years, Fort Lyon has served many purposes. It’s been a place of healing and convalescence and a place of misery and death. In 1864, the original Army post, a few miles east of the present location, was the staging ground for the Sand Creek Massacre, Colonel John Chivington’s infamous attack on a peaceful, largely unarmed village of Cheyenne and Arapaho. That post was abandoned after the Arkansas River flooded in 1867, a deluge that plucked the bodies of dead soldiers from the fort’s cemetery.
The current site operated as a military fort for only two years before the Army shut it down — long enough for Kit Carson to die there, of an aortic aneurysm, at the age of 59. Decades later, the Navy reopened the place as a rest home for tuberculosis patients. Then it was turned over to the United States Public Health Service and eventually the Veterans Administration, which embarked on an ambitious building program on the former parade grounds.
By the 1950s, Fort Lyon had become a sprawling psychiatric-hospital complex, populated by more than a thousand patients. It had an Olympic-sized swimming pool, a miniature golf course, tennis courts, stately brick dormitories, staff quarters — more than a hundred buildings in all, including some adobe structures dating back to the 1860s. But over time the facility became too costly to maintain, as veterans in Front Range cities opted for closer, more accessible services. The VA turned the operation into a nursing home and outpatient clinic but couldn’t stem the financial hemorrhaging; when the agency finally decided to shut it down, it had only 56 occupied beds and a staff of fewer than 200.
In 2001, the federal government sold the property to the State of Colorado for the sum of one dollar. The plan was to transform the campus into a special prison for elderly and mentally ill inmates, but the Fort Lyon Correctional Facility never functioned quite as advertised. Like the VA, the Colorado Department of Corrections had trouble attracting qualified medical personnel to a remote corner of the state. Maintenance and renovation costs — including dealing with asbestos-abatement issues in many of the aging buildings — turned out to be much higher than projected, and inmates complained of work assignments that exposed them to environmental hazards. After ten years and millions spent on cleanup projects, the DOC shuttered the money pit in a budget-tightening move.
The closure cost struggling Bent County hundreds of jobs, and local officials lobbied the Hickenlooper administration to find another use for the facility. County commissioner Bill Long, a member of the state’s repurposing committee, says the group attempted to woo several industry interests without success. “Some entities were afraid of taking over that large a campus,” he says.
In the absence of plausible alternatives, the idea took root of converting the prison to a treatment center for people battling substance abuse and homelessness. Bent County offered to operate the physical plant, under contract with the state, and the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless was invited to run the program.
Ginsburg, then the director of substance-treatment services for CCH, remembers a meeting with colleague Phil Harrington at the Market in Denver to draw up a wish list of what the two men wanted in their ideal recovery program. They mapped out a plan for a long-term, peer-driven process that would be non-stigmatizing; that is, it would approach addiction as a disease (Ginsburg calls it “a chronic progressive fatal brain disorder”) rather than as a character flaw. It would also provide the tools to overcome past trauma and prepare clients for a transition to stable housing, along with educational and employment opportunities.
“It’s all the best practices we understand under one roof,” says Ginsburg, who has a quarter-century of experience working with homeless alcoholics and addicts as a street outreach worker and CCH official. “Our main objective was, ‘Don’t re-traumatize people.’ I was thinking, ‘It would be great to do this, but they’re going to water it down to where I don’t want to do it.’ But it maintained its original vision. Nobody ever said no.”
Long and other locals were, in fact, enthusiastic about the prospect of hosting hundreds of people in recovery at Fort Lyon. The program wouldn’t generate nearly as many jobs as the prison, but it would keep the place open, and the residents wouldn’t be much different, demographically speaking, from the traumatized military vets who’d been patients there for generations. (Two-thirds of the current residents, a group that numbers around 160 men and 40 women, are age 45 or older; 26 percent are veterans.) Nobody said no until state lawmakers nixed the project’s initial funding request. There was also some grumbling among homeless advocates and addiction specialists on a national scale, who saw the proposed program as a throwback to the convalescent homes and dry-out farms of an earlier era. The buzzword today is “Housing First,” in which getting homeless individuals off the streets and into supportive housing in the community is the top priority.
“This is new and controversial, nationally,” Ginsburg acknowledges. “But those of us who have worked in Housing First see the darker side of it, which is people dying in supportive housing because their addiction isn’t being addressed. This is a sub-population. We are all about Housing First, but we also need to be about comprehensive treatment and recovery communities for people who want them. You have to offer a choice.”
With strong backing from Governor John Hickenlooper, the program finally was able to put together start-up funding and open its doors three years ago this week. Several of the first arrivals put in long hours helping to get the place in shape, tidying the grounds and painting and putting in new pipes and floors and sidewalks. (At least a couple of the initial clients are still there, now working as staffers.) A waiting list for placement developed, stretching out as long as six months. The backlog no longer exists; a client who gets a referral today will probably be on the van within a week.
The requirements for referral to Fort Lyon are pretty basic, Ginsburg says: “You have to be homeless or at risk. And you have to have a substance-use disorder. You can’t be a registered sex offender, court-ordered to treatment or have an open warrant.”
And one other thing: You have to want to be there. When the coalition took over Fort Lyon, removing the razor-wire-topped prison fences was more than a symbolic gesture; there’s nothing to keep people in the program beside their own desire to get sober. Although residents are restricted to the campus for the first thirty days after their arrival, there’s none of the heavily structured, boot-camp atmosphere of short-term rehab programs. Many of the program’s clients have failed such regimens in the past and are astonished at how few rules Fort Lyon imposes on them.
“I’ve been in treatment three times,” says Gary, a Fort Lyon grad approaching his 600th day of sobriety. “The short-term treatment gets you fired up, but every time, I got drunk the next day, as soon as I got out. Most alcoholics, if you tell them to do something, they’re going to do the opposite. At Fort Lyon, nobody was forcing anything down my throat.”
The low-key approach to treatment, with an emphasis on individual choice, may be Fort Lyon’s greatest strength as well as its most obvious drawback. On the one hand, the program presents little difficulty for those who, in the grip of a terrible thirst, decide to trudge six miles into the hardscrabble town of Las Animas to get drunk. But on the other, it also encourages residents to choose their own path to recovery and take control of their lives, perhaps for the first time in decades.
New arrivals are told that they must attend a community gathering three times a week and take a twelve-step-oriented course called New Beginnings. No Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings are required. Yet Fort Lyon now has 21 different varieties of meetings a week, all initiated and conducted by residents. There are Bible-based meetings and meetings for atheists, meetings for the dually addicted and those coping with mental illness, meetings for people seeking an alternative to AA.
Not everyone goes to the meetings. Among the residents, estimates of how many of their fellows are there simply to “take a free ride” or wait out the processing of a housing voucher range from 5 to 20 percent. “There’s drinking down there,” Gary declares. “There’s drugging down there. There are people down there just to get Social Security [disability benefits] that don’t want to work.”
The program conducts random breath and urine tests. Once detected, drinking or drugging are grounds for immediate ejection; in Fort Lyon parlance, someone who’s booted has “caught the 105,” the bus back to Denver. In the program’s second year, 56 clients completed the program or left because housing became available. But 89 others left because of non-compliance (such as getting high) or rules violations, because their mental or physical health problems were too formidable, or for other reasons. Another sixteen departed for reasons unknown.
“You can go down there and coast under the radar and not do any work at all,” Tovrea notes. “But you never know when somebody goes down there and sees somebody else getting it together, [and] maybe they decide to do that, too. Sobriety is a choice, not a place. If you really want to get sober, you can do it in the back end of a car in a parking lot. This just gives you some time, without all the collateral activity on the streets, hustling for nickels and dimes, to deal with what is really going on.”
Two months ago, John “Jake” Johnson, a sixty-year-old man in frail health, boarded the van to Fort Lyon. As the van approached the tree-lined drive to the main complex, Johnson began to feel terribly anxious and afraid, but not for the usual reasons.
He had been here before, when he was a different man and Fort Lyon was a different place. And he had bad memories of those days, memories that came flashing back as he drew closer.
Johnson has spent almost all of his adult life behind bars or homeless. For several years, he was a minimum-security prisoner at the Fort Lyon Correctional Facility. He helped wheelchair-bound inmates in and out of the shower, got them to meals and medical appointments. For the terminal, the ones with cancer or full-blown hepatitis C or just the accumulated wreckage of old age, there was not much in the way of hospice care or any other consideration.
“If you had a life sentence, you were gonna die in that bed,” he says. “As many guys as I could sit with, I would come and do it. I would hold their hands while they passed on.”
Johnson estimates that he saw at least fifty prisoners die in his time at Fort Lyon. None of it swayed him from his own path of self-destruction — the kind of sodden, life-long train wreck that the recovery program at Fort Lyon is supposed to address. The economic justification for such a program may well rest with people like Johnson, whose undistinguished criminal career encompasses numerous felonies and more than a hundred misdemeanors and has probably cost taxpayers in excess of a million dollars in medical and incarceration costs.
“I never committed a crime sober in my entire life,” Johnson says. “Every one of them is related to drinking. Take that and multiply it by the other inmates who did the same thing, and you’re talking about some real money.”
Johnson took his first drink at the age of eleven and began drinking heavily in his teens. The death of his father, which led to his family’s move from an upper-middle-class neighborhood in east Denver to a housing project on the west side, seemed to accelerate the process. He dropped out of high school, picked up a juvenile record and then an adult rap sheet peppered with driving violations and public disturbances as well as burglary and auto theft charges — crimes to finance more booze and oblivion. He went to rehab six times. It never took.
In 1990, shortly after the death of his mother, Johnson walked into a bank in downtown Denver buzzed on Mad Dog 20/20. He was wearing a three-piece pinstripe suit under a jumpsuit, hat and sunglasses. He handed a teller a note saying he wanted cash and no exploding dye packs, please. He fully expected to be shot dead. Instead, the woman handed him the money. The FBI picked him up a few days later at the bus station. The agents had studied the surveillance footage and identified his jumpsuit as the uniform of a Greyhound employee with the distinctive sleeve insignia removed.
He received a surprisingly short four-year sentence for that one. But prison time had a way of expanding for Johnson because of his inability to meet parole conditions, including staying sober. In 1999 he picked up another four-year jolt for stealing $1,500 from his employer, a bail bondsman. What was supposed to be a brief stint in community corrections turned into ten long years of weaving in and out of a cell; he would parole homeless, walk away from a shelter or halfway house, get charged with escape and end up back in prison. He would sign up for substance-abuse programs in prison, but that usually amounted to nothing more than being on a waiting list until he reached his mandatory release date.
Johnson finally finished his 1999 sentence in 2010. The Department of Corrections released him to the streets of Pueblo with eleven dollars in his pocket and a prison ID card. He went door to door, asking businesses if they would pay him something to pick up trash in front of their shops. As soon as he scratched a few bills together, he went back to drinking.
Eventually he managed to stay sober for two years wh
ile living with his sister and waiting out a series of applications for Section 8 housing in Denver. He got turned down every time, a situation he blames on his extensive felony record. He gave up.
“I was pissed,” he recalls. “I got a bottle of Cuervo and a hotel room. I’m sixty years old, and I’ve never had my own apartment. It’s always been a cell.”
Last spring, an intoxicated Johnson crashed his bike into a tree downtown, sustaining a traumatic brain injury. Tests at the hospital showed a blood alcohol content of .40, enough to kill most people. He was in a coma for five days, he says, until his brother walked into the room and shouted in his ear, “Wake up, you fucker!”
It was time for a reckoning. A detox worker told him about a new long-term program for people like him. When he discovered that it was at Fort Lyon, he knew he had to go, despite the bad memories. He had to find a new way to live and put the ghosts of the past to rest.
“When we came through the gates, all that animosity and fear I was feeling, it all went out the door,” he says. “It was like, you’re home. You’re back. God brought me here for a reason.”
At Fort Lyon, Johnson has worked with a therapist on his bad memories. He’s received medical attention for back problems and his brain injury, which makes him feel emotionally overwhelmed at times. He lives in a dorm where he used to visit dying prisoners. “I have to remind myself, ‘You can leave any time you want,’” he says. “‘You need to wake up; you’re not in the joint.’”
He has a case manager who assures him he’s going to find housing this time around. He attends three AA meetings a week and is convinced this is the best chance he’s ever had to get off the merry-go-round of prison, shelters and the streets.
“This is the first place I’ve been where they give you all the tools to operate your own program,” he says. “I had always been forced to go to AA, either by probation or parole, and never liked it at all. I was never there long enough to learn how to work the steps. I’m on my fourth step now — a complete and fearless inventory of myself. I got to get an extra notebook for that.”
Johnson gets up early. Although no one formally asked him to join the grounds crew, he spends a lot of time raking outside his dormitory and picking up trash. Some other residents needle him about it.
“This place has some real assholes in it,” he says. “They’re here for the ride, and that’s all. Some of them got on me because I’m out there cleaning. They say, ‘Oh, what are you trying to do? Earn brownie points?’ But I have learned to ignore it and stick around the positive people, the ones who are here for the program.”
He smiles. “In 25 years, I’ve never been happy,” he says. “And I’m actually happy now. I have my bad days, but I don’t run out and get drunk. I look forward to seeing the sun rise and thank God for another day.”
When he came to Fort Lyon two years ago, Richard Devlin found that he had a lot of time on his hands and nowhere to go. The twenty-year Army veteran asked if he could return to Fort Collins and get his bike so he could have some means of getting around the campus and into town. He was informed that Fort Lyon had a bike shop of sorts, left over from the Department of Corrections days.
“It was a little tiny closet that had six rusty bikes,” he recalls. “I saw I could make one good one that would work out of all of them.”
Devlin, who’d operated a bike-repair business out of his garage for years, recognized an opportunity to develop a bicycle culture at Fort Lyon. Some of the residents had difficulty walking or working out, but they could still pedal — and what better form of stress relief for people fighting addiction than exercise? With the staff’s blessing, he rented a U-Haul and made the rounds of surrounding towns, asking for donations of old bikes. He reached out to connections at Colorado State University to pick up bikes owned by out-of-state students that would be left behind at graduation. When he got high-end models, he fixed them up and sold them, earning enough money to assemble thirty sturdy clunkers in the first six months. Residents could check them out of his shop for free at seven in the morning and return them that evening.
Soon bikes were rolling all over the campus. Devlin opened a bike shop in Las Animas. He bought parts in bulk at auctions and offered tune-ups for $25, a fraction of what a shop in Pueblo might charge.
“This is actually the closest bike shop in 83 miles,” Devlin notes. “I have to keep the price good for these people. I’m not making a lot of money, but I know I’m making a lot of people happy.”
Devlin is also the commander of the Fort Lyon American Legion Post 9313, the only post in the country made up entirely of homeless veterans. The group does honor-guard duties at the Fort Lyon National Cemetery and fixes up children’s bikes for a local Toys for Tots program. Governor Hickenlooper took one of Devlin’s cruisers out for a spin when he visited the campus several months ago. But the bicycles are only one of many homegrown enterprises at Fort Lyon that have helped to connect residents to each other and the surrounding community.
The campus has its own barbershop and library. An elegant auditorium, left over from the VA days, has hosted visiting writers and artists in residence, a touring theater company from New York, and a talented, eclectic house band called Backfire. One resident has cultivated an extensive vegetable garden next to a ruined greenhouse, as well as a pumpkin patch visited by local families right before every Halloween.
Formerly an abandoned storefront in Las Animas, the shop where Devlin offers bike sales and repairs also sells various arts-and-crafts items made by other Fort Lyon residents — paintings, woodwork, sculpture, jewelry, skater gear, handmade kaleidoscopes. Artisans from La Junta, Hasty, Sugar City and other nearby towns are represented, too. “We have a little bit of something for everyone,” Devlin boasts.
One of the featured artists is Dara Harvey, whose work appeared recently in the “Searching for Home” exhibit at the History Colorado Center in Denver. Harvey came to Fort Lyon in 2014 and expects to be moving soon with her fiancé, another Fort Lyon grad, to Colorado Springs. She leaves behind a brightly colored fantasia on a wall of the campus cafe and another mural that was commissioned by an elementary school in Las Animas.
“I came here with an attitude of open-mindedness,” Harvey says. “It’s exhausting being homeless. What’s two years when you’re homeless and you have nothing going for you? I spent fifteen years trying to get my foot in the door in the art world and gave up and succumbed to alcoholism. Here, they gave me my own studio space. Just being able to get back to what I love, that was important.”
Also prominently displayed in the store are pieces of furniture refinished by Joe Trotter, one of Fort Lyon’s busiest residents. A carpenter by training, Trotter lost job, home and family to a decades-long slide through crack cocaine and alcohol that left him with a jaw shattered in a fight, a virulent infection contracted in the hospital, and a desperate need to get off the mean streets for good. One of Fort Lyon’s early volunteers, he plunged into getting the place spruced up and has never looked back. These days he operates a furniture-restoration shop on the campus, training others in the craft. He also manages the warehouse, which provides clothes to new arrivals and furniture and housewares to those who are moving into their own place. Although he long ago moved from a dorm to a house with two roommates on the outskirts of the campus, he seems to be everywhere at once, making sure the fort is running smoothly.
“When I was on the street, I was drinking because everybody else was drinking,” he says. “Sometimes you just got to get away. Now my day starts at 4:30 in the morning. I have stuff on my mind I have to get done.”
Several residents and recent grads, including Devlin and Johnson, have made plans to settle in the Arkansas Valley for good. The remoteness of the place, the rural lifestyle — the same qualities some found so stifling at first — have turned out to be oddly reassuring. And, as Marty L. is quick to point out, it’s not Denver.
Like Joe, Marty was one of the first arrivals at Fort Lyon. He spent more than three years homeless in Denver, then 22 months in the program. He got an associate’s degree from Otero Junior College and was hired as a “peer mentor” for the program. “I’d reached a turning point,” he says. “I couldn’t sustain drinking and living out on the streets. I lived in Denver for 31 years. I don’t want to go back to my old playground and playmates. We’re getting a community in La Junta and also in Lamar. Some in Las Animas.”
Not long ago, Jim Collins, the mayor of Las Animas, stopped in at the Fort Lyon store to buy a coffee cup for his bookkeeper. The Fort Lyon program doesn’t have the same kind of immediate economic impact on his town as a prison next door, but its effect is growing, he observes.
“It’s a mutually synchronous relationship,” Collins says. “This building was empty for years. The businesses in town have 200 more customers. And the campus out there isn’t even close to being fully utilized. Just about any small industry that needs a facility could go out there.”
County commissioner Long, who operates the Dairy Queen in Las Animas and has Devlin building a bike for him, calls the revival of Fort Lyon “the most rewarding project I’ve ever been involved in — and the most heartbreaking, when you see someone do really well for a while and then fall down. But if they’re committed, they’re frequently given a second chance.”
Long says that grant funding has already been obtained to clean up another of the major hospital buildings at Fort Lyon. That’s more rooms than the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless — which wants to keep the program capacity under 250 — can use, but Long sees the possibility of other enterprises on the campus, too, including some form of rehab program for paying clients.
“We think we might be able to serve folks who aren’t homeless but have addiction issues,” he suggests. “A month at some of these addiction places can be $20,000 or $30,000. It wouldn’t be a two-year program, but it would be longer than ninety days, and it would be affordable.”
When Tony Tovrea isn’t driving newcomers to Fort Lyon, he works as a case manager for people coming out of the program and trying to settle into a new life. “Most people do well while they’re down there,” he says. “Even the naysayers. But when they leave, they don’t realize how much of their success is because they’ve been part of a community.”
Tovrea meets regularly with recent grads in the Arkansas Valley and along the Front Range. The Denver chapter of the Friends of Fort Lyon gathers once a week at the Market to sip coffee, compare notes, share progress reports — and offer encouragement to those who might be wavering. “One of the adages of AA is, you change the playmates, you change the crib,” Tovrea explains. “A lot of guys, they come back up and somebody tries to give them a beer as a welcome back.”
Gary, who managed to hang on to his home despite almost drinking himself to death, figures he owes it to the program to show up for the coffee klatsch as often as he can. “I come down to these meetings to make myself available and pass out my phone number,” he says. “I got a second chance. I owe that now to somebody else who wants to get sober.”
Just what kind of after-care program works best for someone after two years at Fort Lyon is an unsettled question. CCH has raised some eyebrows by placing two dozen graduates of the program in the Renaissance at North Colorado Station, the supportive-living apartment complex it erected near the airport commuter-rail line. The 103-unit complex offers the first stable housing many of them have ever had, but it’s likely that at least some of the other formerly homeless individuals who’ve been placed there, as part of a Housing First initiative, are still engaged in substance abuse. Although the other residents don’t have access to the “sober wing,” the proximity of the two groups in the same building constitutes what could become a bold social experiment — or an absolute folly.
Larger questions about the overall effectiveness of the Fort Lyon program may not be answered until the legislative study is completed in two years. CCH officials say the program’s retention rate is significantly higher than that of short-term rehab centers, but the much-scrutinized program has generated a series of somewhat conflicting metrics, and the view of its short-term success depends a great deal on which numbers you’re looking at.
In Fort Lyon’s second year of operation, roughly two out of every three residents who left failed to complete the program. Preliminary figures for the third year indicate strong improvement; for example, a quarterly report from the first quarter of 2016 shows that 60 percent of the residents who left during that period completed the program. For the year as a whole, “52 percent met self-identified goals and completed the program successfully.” But the program’s skeptics say they’ve found it difficult to nail down hard numbers on how many people are still sober and in stable housing a year or more after leaving Fort Lyon.
“One of the big challenges is that nobody has agreed upon the definition of success for Fort Lyon,” says Steadman. “What they’ve been giving us is these metrics about how many people met their goals. Well, what are their goals? If they met a goal of two months’ sobriety, are they better off today? Did we get our money’s worth from that?”
Steadman says that he applauds the effort behind Fort Lyon, which “represents the first time that the State of Colorado has acknowledged any sort of responsibility for dealing with homeless people.” Still, he pushed for the study in order to get a clearer picture of the program’s long-range track record, success rate, costs and benefits. He also tried to include a sunset provision that would pull the plug on the program if the data indicated it wasn’t succeeding, but Fort Lyon boosters got that provision removed.
“The administration said they didn’t want to have this ax hanging over their head,” he says. “They had some really lame excuses, but ultimately I lost that argument. Fort Lyon has proved to be pretty good at getting to people’s heartstrings and tugging at their emotional louvers rather than their logical ones.”
Program director Ginsburg says he looks forward to the study results. “If it’s not working, I don’t want to do it,” he says. “But this type of program is always going to be under the gun. I get the argument that says we should take that $5 million and put it in permanent housing. But we’re way behind in this country on addiction treatment. It’s still extremely stigmatized.”
At a recent community meeting at Fort Lyon, Ginsburg stood at a whiteboard and read passages from the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders concerning the essential factors of a substance-abuse disorder, including “changes in brain circuits.” He drew a small circle on the board, observing that just about everybody in the room had spent most of their lives trapped in a repetitive journey that revolved around shelters, liquor stores, soup kitchens, panhandling and dope buys.
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“You have a severe disorder,” he said. “You’ve been using for decades. This is the only life you know, this little world. You come to Fort Lyon, and you get on that van, and all of a sudden you have a shot at rewiring your brain. The reason it’s so far, the reason it’s two years, is right here.” He read aloud from the manual: “These persistent drug effects may benefit by a long-term approach to treatment.”
He talked about thirty-day treatment programs and why they often don’t work. (“Didn’t do shit,” muttered a listener in the back.) He talked about how “when you first start using, you feel bulletproof and ten feet tall,” but then the magic stops working. Heads nodded in agreement.
“You can come here and still live in this little world, this little brain, for two years,” he said. “I can’t make you treat it. All we can do is create the space.”
He smiled. “I’m going to stop now,” he said. “I feel like I’m preaching.”