Five Years At Fort Lyon

The Fort Lyon Supportive Residential Community is celebrating its five-year anniversary as a new third-party report sheds light on the program’s successes and gaps. Does the innovative, and unusual, program work?

By Sarah Ford 

The Fort Lyon campus in Bent County (Credit: Colorado Coalition for the Homelesss)

The Fort Lyon campus in Bent County (Credit: Colorado Coalition for the Homelesss)

Lala’s room is small, the appearance reminiscent of a college dorm room with just a twin-sized bed, clothing rack, and small desk. But it is unmistakably home, covered in art projects — paintings, photographs, a wood-carved cross, and a series of metalwork butterflies decorate one wall. 

“They’re symbolic to me,” Lala explains. “Because I was like a caterpillar trapped in my addiction lifestyle. But now I can actually express how I feel. Actually express feelings. I can actually communicate with people. So I feel like now I have my wings.”

Lala is one of over 200 residents working through recovery from addiction and homelessness at the Fort Lyon Supportive Residential Community, a rehabilitation project run by the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless and operated through Bent County. Lala arrived a year ago, choosing to enter the program at the behest of her pastor in Alamosa rather than face 13 to 14 years of jail time for her convictions. 

At first, she was reluctant, wearried by years of unsuccessful treatment programs. 

“I was like ‘it’s just another rehab, I don’t want to go.’ I just didn’t want to deal with it again,” Lala says. “Then [my pastor] started explaining to me how the program is different, how it helps you out with housing. I was like, ‘alright, go to prison and maybe not come back out ... or come back out to the same lifestyle?’ Because [jail] gave me no opportunities.”

So after spending six months in county jail, Lala boarded the bus to rural Bent County. 

About 20 residents like Lala arrive monthly at Fort Lyon via the twice-weekly bus, which leaves from downtown Denver with stops in Colorado Springs and Pueblo. More than 1,300 people have cycled through the program in its five-year span, with about 220 in residence at any given time. 

But the program didn’t always pull so many in. 

Before the Fort Lyon program had secured funding for renovation, it faced heavy scrutiny from state legislators who balked at the unorthodox program structure and its nearly $5 million annual cost. How could an untested model, which bucks so many trends of rehabilitative care and homeless service providers, be trusted to succeed?

Where many treatment programs operate within the communities of their clients, running 30 or 90-day programs, Fort Lyon brings people hundreds of miles from home to a remote location for two years. Rather than the housing-first model, considered the standard-bearer in housing programs, Fort Lyon residents focus on addiction recovery before transitioning into housing. 

Five years in, the question of the program’s “success” still lies in a gray area. 

“We’re constantly trying to define ‘does this work?’ and what that means,’” says program founder and director James Ginsburg. 

Some answers came this August in a thorough state-required evaluation. For the first time, the audit provided a cost-benefit analysis with data-driven results going back to the facility’s opening in 2013. 

Legislators categorized the report’s results as mixed: it found 47 percent of residents transitioned into permanent housing upon graduation from the program. Another 29 percent exited into transitional housing, meaning 79 percent of program graduates achieved some form of housing. 

However, the report found that just 38 percent of the 776 participants evaluated achieved their goals to graduate the program. While the low percentage alarmed some, Ginsburg views it in the context of the population being served. 

“To be honest, I was hoping for a 30 percent success rate,” he says. With the limited statistics available showing low recovery rates for those battling heavy drug and alcohol addictions, Ginsburg views low “success” rates as expected. “According to AA, long term recovery — which is five years of sobriety — has about a five to 20 percent success rate. The statistics are pretty abysmal in terms of addiction recovery,” he says. 

“The public perception is that not every single person is succeeding in the program,” says Colorado Coalition for the Homeless spokeswoman Cathy Alderman. “But this program really has a pretty high success rate compared to other programs. We are treating people with dignity and not telling them there is only one way to treat their addiction.”

Alderman is referring to the flexible structure of the program, which lays out numerous options and few requirements for residents — another feature considered unique to Fort Lyon. But it is one Lala credits to helping her find her own own success, having achieved what she never has been able to in any other treatment program. 

The library at Fort Lyon. (Credit: Colorado Coalition for the Homeless)

The library at Fort Lyon. (Credit: Colorado Coalition for the Homeless)

“I’ve been on probation for the past seven years of my life,” she says “this is the first year I’ve been on probation where I’ve not gotten revoked, I have not relapsed, and I’ve done everything the program comprised for me to do.”

The last treatment program she tried, a 90-day program in Fort Collins, stands in contrast to the Fort Lyon model. There, she was required to wake at 8:00 a.m. for homework and produce an autobiography before exiting. 

“I wrote my autobiography within the last three days of me being there,” says Lala. “Because I was forced to do something. Then, when I transitioned back home, it was the same steps. I was only clean for five months, then I went right back to the same lifestyle and got new charges, worse charges. I think that’s what’s different. [Here] they don’t require us to do anything, they give us a chance to actually ask for help.” 

The list of requirements for Fort Lyon residents is short: don’t leave campus for the first 30 days after arrival, create a personal goals plan, attend a six-week program on substance abuse called “New Beginnings,” and attend the community meeting three times a week. The rest is up to them. 

“The reason [the program] is so long and we don’t have a lot of structure is because a lot of treatment centers do that,” says Ginsburg. “When you’re there you have all these structures and everybody is compliant. But then you leave and the external controls are gone, and if you don’t internalize it, it will not last. It just doesn’t. Were really trying to help people learn to appropriate and internalize their recovery.” 

For Lala, that has meant pursuing her faith through running a women’s Bible study, working in the facility’s game room, and joining the peer committee to help organize events for other residents. 

The path to healing is different for each resident, says Ginsburg, and it can sometimes be unexpected. For instance, one of Fort Lyon’s first residents opened his own “barber shop” in his room. 

“Instead of coming in and saying ‘this isn’t a barber shop model’ we bought him equipment, we let him do it,” says Ginsburg. “He’s since graduated from the program, completed his barber training at Emily Griffith, and he owns his own barber shop now in Denver where he cuts [Governor] Hickenlooper’s hair.”

There are so many options available to residents it’s easy to see how it could become overwhelming. There is an art room, woodworking, a library, game room, music room filled with various equipment, dozens of supportive meetings from Narcotics Anonymous (NA) to Cocaine Anonymous (CA), and even a model race track built by a resident. 

For Doug Kathol, who has been in the program for over two months, there was never a questions of how he’d start working towards recovery. In addition to attending AA meetings, the self-proclaimed “master gardener” took immediately to tending the therapy gardens decorating the scenic campus. 

It was a pleasant surprise for someone who thought he had admitted himself to a “prison” for two years. Instead, he found a setting he describes as “like a college campus.”

“Coming here was a whole different world for me,” says Kathol. “It’s like AA. We [residents] never would have knowing each other or hung together until we came. There’s people I never, ever would have talked to and now they’re becoming friends.” 

One of those friends is Chuck Johnson, who has been at Fort Lyon for five and a half months. Both arrived from Gunnison, where their lives had intersected before. 

“We’d seen each other in Gunnison, but we weren’t friends in Gunnison,” says Johnson. “We were too busy chasing our vices in different circles.” 

But the isolation of Fort Lyon isn’t always easy, and the first 30 days of being restricted to campus is especially a challenge to newcomers. 

“The first 30 days, you pretty much hate the place,” says Johnson. “You can’t go anywhere, you can’t do anything. You’re anxious, trying to fill your day with something, and all they tell you is ‘no you can’t do this, just go relax and enjoy yourself.’” 

In his first week in the program, Donovan Small was was one of those struggling with the driftless early days, the separation from his community, the new life. He wanted out. 

“I wanted to leave my first four or five days,” he says. “My guy had gotten his pills in and I was going to go snort some Oxycontin like I always do.” But a fellow resident convinced him to stay, and on day eight of his stay in the program, he says he is able to relax for the first time in years. “This is a sanctuary, a refuge, a harbor for people like us,” he says. “You get here and realize you’re going to have pain, and you’re going to have to deal with it. I’m in serious pain, but I’m dealing with it.”

When residents finish their 30-day period of decompression, they are welcome to go to the nearby communities of Las Animas and La Junta for any of a suite of options: volunteer work, employment, shopping, medical treatment, or classes in one of two nearby colleges. 

The opportunity to work, according to Ginsburg, is one of the greatest missing components in rehabilitative housing services. 

“We’ve really neglected, I think, facilitating people’s desire to be productive,” he says. “Whether it’s voluntary or work.” 

That desire has only been fostered by Bent County’s strong support, according to Ginsburg. The County runs the Fort Lyon facility, and he says the community has been “great from the beginning,” giving residents numerous ways to engage. 

“They rehabbed the Dairy Queen, they rehabbed the new community center in Las Animas, they’ve worked with the history museum,” he says. 

The boost goes both ways. According to the third-party study, Fort Lyon has generated 119 jobs in Bent County and $10.3 million in financial activity. Further, the program was found to be a cost-saver. 

It costs about $18,000 to support a person in the program, according to the study. Meanwhile it is estimated that physical medical, judiciary, mental health, and other community costs for a person on the streets average $47,000 per person annually. 

“There are so many ways [Fort Lyon] does work,” says Ginsburg. “Think about all the damage people who are experiencing addiction and homelessness do to the community. That’s beyond the cost of detox, hospitals, and all that. Just the societal negative impact. Conversely, [at Fort Lyon] how people are positively impacting their family and their community.”

Kathol, like so many residents, says that impact is one of the most crucial parts to his recovery. 

“The easy part is getting sober, that’s easy,” he says. “The hardest part is going back out there and learning to live a sober life. Which means I have to change almost everything about me. I want to be useful to society again. Just be useful to others. If I can be of service, that’s all I care about. I can never give back what I’ve gotten out of this program. I can never, ever give that back.” 

As the program enters its sixth year, some members among Colorado’s legislature continue to call for more: more intake, more development, more innovation, more results. But Ginsburg maintains that the program must place integrity over high aspirations. 

“I don’t know if it’s ‘worth it’” he says with air quotes. “I don’t know if I’ll ever know if it’s worth it. But I at least don’t think there is much political will to close it.” 

But it is certainly worth it to Lala, who is preparing to go to school at Otero Junior College in La Junta for cosmetology and business management, hoping to one day open a business and employ female felons like herself. 

“This program helps us change who we are,” she says. “Some people don’t give themselves the opportunity to have that second chance, but if they do take advantage of it, there’s so much this program can do for you. So much.” ■