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Legislation to turn shuttered prison into statewide homeless center moves to governor

May 8, 2013 Updated: May 8, 2013 at 10:30 am
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DENVER Homeless individuals from across the state would be transported to Las Animas for housing, treatment and job training under a bill that sneaked through the back door of the Capitol before Wednesday's midnight deadline.

The plan now awaits the governor's signature.

Gov. John Hickenlooper and lawmakers from southeastern Colorado have worked diligently this legislative session to acquire funding and approval to turn the closed Fort Lyon Correctional Facility into a homeless service center.

Just last week, it appeared their efforts had failed.

But Rep. Leroy Garcia, D-Pueblo, and Rep. Tim Dore, D-Elizabeth, tacked the proposal onto a separate bill that deals with compensation of Department of Corrections employees - a move that some criticized as a violation of the legislative process. The Senate, though, agreed with the amendment.

Hickenlooper, who has long supported the idea, included funding for the project in his 2014 budget proposal, but the Joint Budget Committee stripped that funding out of the $2.4 billion budget amid questions of the soundness of the plans and sustainability.

Then Garcia and Dore introduced House Bill 1261, which passed the House with overwhelming support only to die in a Senate Committee, 5-2.

Finally, the two lawmakers amended the exact language of their bill onto SB210, and it passed the Senate as amended.

Funding

The bill as approved would provide $2.79 million next year to the Division of Housing for facility maintenance and to convert the facility from a prison to more of a dormitory setting. It also includes almost $1 million to the Department of Corrections for implementation.

Sen. Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs, said he opposed the bill specifically because he has never received a clear answer as to how much the program will cost the state moving forward.

'We've continually asked questions about what the business process is going to be to fund this, ' Lambert said. 'We don't really have any evidence that this is a good investment. '

Lambert said there are underfunded homeless shelters in the Denver area that could use help, rather than a remote location that he is skeptical could attract a voluntary clientele.

But Garcia said the remote location is perfect for treatment of the chronically homeless precisely because it will remove them from the distractions of the city and put them in a stable environment to learn job skills and recover.

Fort Lyon is a 550-acre campus near Las Animas that housed prisoners until it was closed two years ago.

Garcia said closing the facility had a huge economic impact to nearby communities in Bent County, including an almost $800,000 loss in revenue to the local utility company.

Dore estimated about 30 jobs will be created at the facility, but the economic impact will be far more sweeping as the facility spends money in local economies.

'There's economic factors that are beyond just the job factor that will have a ripple effect, ' Dore said. 'The ripple effect will be a huge economic impact not just for Bent County. '

Although the state has been working closely with the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, the bill says only that the contract to run the facility will be awarded to a group that has experience running a state-wide program.

Lambert said these types of social services are best provided by local governments rather than at a state-wide level, and he pointed to Mayor Steve Bach's plans to create a homeless one-stop service center in Colorado Springs. That idea is still in its infancy, and no facility has been located.

Dore said once the bill is signed things will move rapidly to get the facility up and running. He said they expect to have between 200 and 300 homeless individuals housed at the facility.

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Contact Megan Schrader: 719-286-0644

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