Published: May 21, 2013
Gov. John Hickenlooper plans to be in rural Bent County on Friday to sign a bill that will reopen the shuttered Fort Lyon Correctional Facility as a homeless rehabilitation center.
But once the ink dries, the task of launching the program falls directly in the hands of Bent County.
"Bent County will have a long-term lease with the State of Colorado," said Bill Long, chairman of the Bent County Commission. "The county will provide all of the maintenance and operation of the facility."
The county will be responsible for selecting a vendor - likely a group already serving the homeless population in Colorado - to run treatment and rehabilitation programs at the facility. Other service providers will be sought to provide referrals to the center from across the state.
There's a lot of skin in the game for Bent County, about $500,000 for a decentralized heating and air system in the first year and a promise to provide bus services from Las Animas to the remote Fort Lyon facility.
But Long says it's unquestionably a good investment for the county.
"Fort Lyon has been a part of the fabric of our life for nearly a century and a half, and to have Fort Lyon continue is so important," said Long, whose grandfather was a baker at the facility when it served as a rehabilitation center for veterans. "This homeless project will ultimately employ between 60 and 80 individuals . Fully utilizing the campus could provide potentially up to another 100 jobs."
He said that would make the site the second largest employer in the county.
"We've had a number of businesses close in the past two to three years, partially due to the closure of Fort Lyon but also due to the drought," he said. "It's very important to the long term success of our community."
But the program isn't without critics.
In addition to the $3.75 million the state designates in SB 210, another $5 million was committed in March 2012 from the state's settlement with mortgage companies for improper foreclosure practices.
That investment and future operating costs will be a loss if homeless individuals aren't interested in traveling to rural Colorado for treatment, rehabilitation, job training and ultimately a chance at housing vouchers to return to their communities with a new lease on life.
Pat Coyle, director of the Colorado Division of Housing, said the program will not only work but could save the state money in the long run when it comes to offsetting medical treatment provided to the chronically homeless in emergency rooms that can be avoided with stable housing and access to doctors at the Fort Lyon facility.
"While on the streets, these individuals are being treated in our emergency rooms and it's extremely expensive," Coyle said. "We are trying to provide a lower cost method of treating them."
Fort Lyon - a 200-acre campus with multiple buildings - already has medical centers ready to open along with kitchens and dormitory-style apartments.
And there is an existing model for success.
The Denver Rescue Mission has operated Harvest Farm near the town of Wellington - almost the last stop before the Wyoming border - since the '80s.
Alexxa Gagner, spokeswoman for the Rescue Mission, said it at times has a waiting list for the agricultural program and at the moment is close to the capacity of 72 men.
And the success rate once men leave the 500-acre farm is high, she said. In the 2011 fiscal year, it had 26 graduates of the program and 79 percent of those men were still in housing a year later.
Coyle said his organization has about 6,500 Section 8 vouchers and Fort Lyon could become the gateway to get homeless individuals into stable housing.
Aside from creating jobs for Bent County, Long said serving the homeless is a noble goal that the community embraces.
"Having this opportunity to provide a much needed service to veterans and homeless folks and people who are in desperate need of help, a second chance, and for some a last chance, that's important," Long said. "That's what we did as a facility that provided treatment to veterans from the 1920s to 2001."
Contact Megan Schrader: 719-286-0644 Twitter @CapitolSchrader