Updated: November 20, 2013 at 3:53 pm
LAS ANIMAS- They stepped off a shuttle bus excited and eager to pose on the front steps of one of Colorado's historic landmarks, proudly holding up Otero Junior College T-shirts.
The promise of a bright new future gleamed in their eyes.
But they aren't the state's typical college students.
They are 14 new residents of Colorado's first state-funded homeless shelter at the former Fort Lyon Correctional Facility, and on Tuesday, they took the first steps toward enrolling in school.
The average age of the 70 residents now living at Fort Lyon is 49, which is the average life expectancy for someone who is chronically homeless, says James Ginsburg, program director for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless.
"It's attractive to that population," Ginsburg said of the new shelter and program. "They say 'I will come here or I will die this year.'"
Not too long ago, Fort Lyon - a 500-acre campus that was a veterans' hospital before it became a prison - felt like a ghost town with an empty main street in the middle of southeastern Colorado.
But after significant political wielding and a lot of faith, the campus opened up to homeless from across Colorado three months ago. Today, 15 counties - including El Paso County - have sent residents, but most come from Denver.
It's a solid three-hour drive from Denver, through some of the most rural parts of the state, to get to Fort Lyon.
Many doubted anyone would come.
Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia counted himself among them.
"I was skeptical about whether people would come out here voluntarily," Garcia said, after touring Fort Lyon for the first time Tuesday. "I am impressed."
Ginsburg said there are 100 people waiting to get into the program and the list is growing.
By July of next year, he said the program will be serving 200; by the end of 2014, it could reach 300. He cautioned, though, that it would be better to serve a small population really well - especially at the outset.
A fresh start
Shalom Bakari, 27, was drawn to the program from Denver by the promise of a fresh start.
"I'm tired of being on the street," she said shortly after she'd finished dinner in the dining hall that boasts a chef from a nearby town. "I came here for a year to do some stuff - school and work - to better my life for me and my daughter."
Bakari said she has diabetes and was in and out of the hospital living on the streets. Now she has her disease under control.
But it was scary to climb on a bus and go to an untested program in the middle of nowhere.
"But once you decide not to live like this anymore, you'll do anything to change," said Bakari, one of 15 women in the program.
The program is sober. No drugs or alcohol are allowed.
The other big draw, said Isabel McDevitt, executive director of the Bridge House in Boulder, is the guarantee of a housing voucher after a resident has completed either the 12-month or 24-month program.
McDevitt is the coordinator for referrals to Fort Lyon from Boulder County and she said the promise of housing after completing the program is huge.
Giving a sense of hope
In addition to getting substance-abuse treatment at Fort Lyon, residents gain job experience and Otero Junior College will be providing classes in subjects such as basic computer skills.
The residents also are helping to fix up the historic Fort Lyon grounds, some working up to five hours a day.
Others are beginning an agricultural program that started with baby chicks this spring.
The end goal, Ginsburg said, is to have people leave the program and go back to their home counties with a job and a home and a real sense of hope.
It takes about $2 million to run the program and about $2 million to run the facilities - a cost split among the state, Bent County and other funding sources.
"That's about $17,000 per person," Ginsburg said. "We know if they are on the street it costs about $36,000 a year to do nothing."
It cost the Department of Corrections $19 million a year to run a prison there, Ginsburg said.
And the program also provides much needed jobs in Bent County.
When the state shut the prison, about 300 people either lost their jobs or had to move to another facility.
Bent County Commissioner Bill Long said that hurt, and reopening Fort Lyon became an obsession for him.
About 27 people are now employed at Fort Lyon. Ginsburg said they hire from the community whenever possible. and most service providers are from nearby hospitals and treatment centers.
Long said he's OK with the relatively small jobs numbers because the project has become about more than jobs: It's become about helping a needy population across the state, about giving people a new lease on life.
"I just want to thank you for this place," Long said.
Contact Megan Schrader