The problems next door

{child_byline}By MARIANNE GOODLAND

Colorado Politics


There’s an old gate at the intersection that marks the entrance to Fort Lyon, once a Veterans Administration Hospital, then a prison, and now what’s become known as the Fort Lyon Supportive Residential Community.

One early evening last summer, a family was walking their dogs near the gate as a car pulled up with two occupants. Both appeared high or intoxicated, according to the family. A man got out of the car and walked into the Fort Lyon facility. The driver, a woman, got out of the car near the gate, and in full view of the family, including children, pulled her pants down and relieved herself.

When the family called out, she just shrugged and said, “Sorry,” got back into the car and left.

It’s not an isolated incident, according to residents of Bent County, both those who live next to Fort Lyon and those who live in the nearby town of Las Animas, some six miles away.When then-Gov. John Hickenlooper announced in 2011 that the state would close the Fort Lyon prison, it sent shock waves through Bent County.

The facility had been the largest employer in the county for decades, with at least 700 employees while it was a Veterans Affairs hospital and about 200 when it converted to a prison.

Residents of the Lower Arkansas Valley cheered when the state converted the prison into a facility to help the chronically homeless with substance abuse problems.

But many are frustrated by the problems those newcomers have sometimes brought : drugs, alcohol, homeless encampments in the Las Animas town park and other places and, this year, a murder.

And residents are speaking out, especially those who believe the Colorado Department of Local Affairs, which oversees the program, and the nonprofit Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, which operates the facility, have turned deaf ears to the problems Fort Lyon has inflicted on the community.

Officials with those two agencies say they have plans and more funding on tap to make Fort Lyon a better neighbor. Residents and law enforcement, while calling for more transparency into how the facility is run, also question how effective the program has been at solving a statewide problem.

A number of issues

A year ago, Jake Six, formerly the undersheriff of nearby Kiowa County, was elected Bent County sheriff. By January, he’d seen enough and started talking about the problems he sees as tied to Fort Lyon. The region has a drug problem, he said, but it’s exacerbated by Fort Lyon.

“They’re bringing people from Denver to here to get them away from a drug problem, and it’s brought us a large, large drug problem,” Six told KOAA in January.

Earlier that month, Donald Jerome Busto, 56, of Las Animas was arrested for second-degree murder in the killing of his roommate, Scott O’Grady, 52. Both were former residents of Fort Lyon; Busto had successfully completed the program, according to several county officials.

DOLA and the coalition declined to comment. According to the Bent County Democrat, Busto told officers he “smoked some meth, drank some whiskey and destroyed another quantity of meth before summoning the police. He also allegedly said he contemplated how best to get rid of O’Grady’s body.”

During a search of the home the two rented in Las Animas, authorities found an ounce of meth, butane torches and glass pipes, a .22 rifle and ammunition.

Busto was convicted of O’Grady’s murder Aug. 30 and was sentenced to 26 years in prison Nov. 8. It was the first murder in the county since 2018 and only the second one in a decade.

In July, Six and Undersheriff Wick Turner told Colorado Politics that things have improved since January. It’s not the facility itself, Six said. “It’s when they’re released or fail the program. They don’t go back” to where they came from.

Shortly after taking office, Six started tracking where those arrested were coming from, to find out who was coming from Fort Lyon, if they were currently enrolled in the program, kicked out or left on their own. In June, Six said that 14 out of the 35 people in custody were associated with the substance abuse program.

“It’s taxing our jails, roads, staff, and we’re getting a lot of complaints from the public about vagrancy,” Six said.

It’s also driving higher workload for the Sheriff’s Office, Six said. County commissioners are trying to help, to add more funding to address “the problem we caused” by agreeing to the facility.

The problems, which are not isolated tor Bent County, prompted a meeting last winter between Department of Local Affair’s Cassy Westmoreland, the program manager, and the sheriffs of Bent, Prowers, Otero and Crowley counties, the police chief of La Junta, and Bent County Commissioner Kim MacDonnell.

Six said that DOLA appeared to be unaware of the issues raised by the sheriffs.

John Spano runs the ambulance service in Bent County. In an email to Colorado Politics, Spano said they track the calls to the institutions in the area, including on-campus calls to Fort Lyon and off-campus calls for those who once lived at the facility.

In 2018, out of 915 calls countywide, the service recorded 28 on-campus calls at Fort Lyon and 18 off-campus, mostly for drug or alcohol abuse. That was a significant decrease from 2017, he said.

But it’s gotten worse in 2019. As of July, they had already made more trips to Fort Lyon than they had for all of 2018, Spano said. Of the 489 calls in the first six months, 37 were on-campus and 17 off-campus, representing 11% of the ambulance service’s total call volume.

Jim and Lorraine Rich have a front-row seat to what goes on at Fort Lyon. Jim Rich retired after 35 years at the VA. The couple live less than 100 yards down from the main gate. Both are livid about the problems they say they see on an almost daily basis at the facility.

They’ve emailed and called to complain, they said, and no one ever calls back. “If they’re trying to do community relations, it’s a damn poor way of doing it,” Jim Rich said.

In February, Lorraine Rich wrote to the Bent County Democrat that, while she wishes the Fort Lyon residents the best in dealing with their drug and alcohol problems, she no longer hikes in the area after she stumbled onto an “encampment” on federal land (it’s owned by the Army Corps of Engineers) near the facility. The residents, and Westmoreland, claim it’s a meditation center, but Lorraine Rich and Six think otherwise.

“We’re just fed up with it,” she told Colorado Politics. “These are our retirement years. … You feel sorry” for the Fort Lyon residents, she said, “but we’re the ones paying the price.”

As of mid-November, Lorraine Rich says she has yet to get a response to her calls and emails regarding the problems she and others still see on a sometimes-daily basis.

Mixed success in treatment

Fort Lyon sits among the fields of eastern Bent County, a 517-acre campus that includes a VA cemetery.

Since 2013, its primary function has been as a drug-rehab facility for those who are substance abusers and chronically homeless and who mostly come from Denver, Colorado Springs, and Pueblo. Fort Lyon serves between 200 and 250 people at any given time.

A 2017 program evaluation conducted by a group hired by the state auditor said that economic activity tied to Fort Lyon generated 119 jobs and about $10.3 million of financial activity in Bent County in 2015 and 2016. Bent County maintains the campus, including work for plumbers, electricians and general maintenance people.

“The location for the program was chosen with the thought that the rural location might benefit participants by providing a geographical buffer between the participants and the communities they come from, therefore limiting contact with the people and places that support continued substance use,” the evaluation said.

Former state Rep. Claire Levy, D-Boulder, toured the facility prior to its opening and was concerned about the campus’s condition — including a lot of asbestos — and how much it would cost to make it habitable. And then there was the cost. The program cited a cost to taxpayers of about $29,000 per year in services for a homeless person, a number that assumed every homeless person utilizes an emergency room and spends a certain number of nights in jail, Levy said.

The Hickenlooper administration estimated the first two years’ cost to the state at about $3.5 million per year, or about $16,813 per person (for a total of 208 people). The state’s costs for Fort Lyon are now $5.1 million per year, according to recent budget figures. Based on the same average number of clients, that’s $24,519 per person.

The program is voluntary and has a strict admissions policy: No drugs. No sex offenders. Nobody with active warrants, although they’re “flexible” with felony convictions, according to Westmoreland.

People just can’t walk into the facility: They have to be referred by one of many third-party partner organizations that work with the homeless and who have done the legwork to ensure the person is ready to give up substance abuse and turn their lives around.

“They’re not coming for three hots and a cot,” she said.

The Colorado Coalition for the Homeless runs the program at Fort Lyon. Spokeswoman Cathy Alderman said that the Fort Lyon program demands a completely sober environment, with a “one-strike and you’re out” rule.

For the first 30 days, residents are not allowed to leave the campus. They’re encouraged to rest, regain their physical health and obtain deferred medical treatment.

A resident can stay for up to 36 months, although two years is the recommended length. Most drug rehab programs last 30 to 90 days, and that’s not enough for these clients, Westmoreland said.

“It takes about eight months for the body to heal and rebuild,” she said.

Westmoreland believes that the model works, citing figures that showed about 78% of the population being homeless for at least a year prior to entering the program, and 60% who had three or more chronic medical or mental health conditions in addition to substance abuse.

But whether the program is successful depends on your definition.

Out of 968 clients, 777 had exited the Fort Lyons program, according to the 2017 program evaluation that reviewed clients from the start of 2013 through June 30, 2017.

Of the 766 who were evaluated, 38%, or 289, had met their goals. Less than half exited to permanent housing; another 29% exited to transitional housing, the report said. Those who went to temporary housing stayed on average 11 months; those who did not complete the program stayed on average 3½ months.

According to the 2017 evaluation, participants “self-determine” when they have completed the program, using a goals and outcomes plan as a guide. They can make that call with support from their peers as well as a case manager.

But that evaluation never looked at those who failed the program. In a 2017 interview with Colorado Public Radio, then-program manager James Ginsburg of the homeless coalition said half had flunked out.

Data from that report shows that out of 615 “graduates,” 134 were still living on the streets or in emergency shelters.

Legislative Audit Manager Michele Colin told Colorado Politics earlier this year that the evaluation was only intended to look at program costs and outcomes from a health perspective.

“It was very narrowly focused” and did not look at the impact of the program on the community. They also didn’t ask what happened to those who failed, in part because it was very difficult to find these people, she said. “I don’t remember that they talked to anyone who was no longer in the program,” Colin said.

The 2017 evaluation was ordered by the General Assembly. One of its sponsors, now-Sen. Bob Rankin, R-Carbondale, was not happy with the review nor with lawmakers’ reaction to it. He told Colorado Politics that he tried to start a discussion over Fort Lyon, but it failed to materialize. He’s now interested in taking another look.

Westmoreland insists that referral organizations understand that Fort Lyon is not a dumping ground, that those organizations have to agree to help those who don’t succeed reintegrate back into their communities.

The homeless coalition’s Alderman said there’s little they can do when someone just decides to quit or walk out. “When people exit the program, we’re not always informed until we find an empty room,” she said. Sometimes people come for a couple of months and leave, and “then come back three or four times before they really commit to long-term recovery.”

Mending fences

Bent County Commissioner MacDonnell is a supporter of the Fort Lyon facility, but she said she’s aware of the problems it has caused for the county. Some of it are consequences the county didn’t anticipate and didn’t show up until time had passed, she said.

MacDonnell said she believes Local Affairs has been “really responsive, recently,” and is working hard to bring resources to the area.

“I am a supporter, not a Pollyanna who says everything’s wonderful and there’s no challenges,” MacDonnell said. “We’ve worked hard with DOLA to talk to people who are impacted the most,” including emergency responders, the sheriff and the ambulance.

“I’ve seen the good outcomes from this work, and I don’t come from a background of working with the homeless,” MacDonnell said. “My observation has been that people who have succeeded have come out strong and in some ways more giving and compassionate than the average man on the street.”

She acknowledges the gaps in services that probably existed before Fort Lyon. Everyone is doing the best they can with what they have, she added, but Fort Lyon has exposed some of those gaps.

“I don’t know what the future of Fort Lyon will be,” MacDonnell said. “I hope it will continue and bring resources to the Lower Arkansas Valley, that people will be willing to come to the table and address the things that are inherent to the program.”

One of the benefits the county realized from Fort Lyon is a transportation network. What began as only support for Fort Lyon has expanded to a transit system that is open to the public and provides bus service in Prowers, Bent and Otero counties. “This is the first inter-city service” of its kind in southeastern Colorado, MacDonnell said.

The federal government covers half of the $240,000 annual cost. DOLA and the counties split the rest.

But the jobs that Bent County hoped to keep from Fort Lyon have failed to materialize. The facility that started with 700 jobs as a hospital, 200 as a prison, is down to 35 for residents outside the facility. Most of the work on campus is done by Fort Lyon clients.

DOLA has lofty plans for Fort Lyon to integrate it more into the local community, Westmoreland said. In the next three years, DOLA’s Division of Housing budget (which covers Fort Lyon) is going to triple, and they’re looking for ways to focus on the local community. “It’s not fair for us to focus just on the Fort Lyon residents,” she said.

When told people have tried for several years to contact the facility about some of the problems, Westmoreland said that was “tricky. The Coalition for the Homeless is contracted to run the program and they aren’t contracted to do community development” or respond to complaints.

“We’re trying to repair that relationship,” Westmoreland said. “I think there’s value in listening to people’s frustrations.” Once they get past the frustration and feel they’ve been heard, “we can get to the heart of the issue.”

Alderman, on the other hand, pointed to the state as the responsible party.

“I’m not sure we have the community relationships solidified in a way we’d like,” but she also acknowledged the homeless coalition could be dealing better with the local residents.

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