When it comes to finding a new life for decommissioned prisons, many tend to go the way of the spooky tourist attraction or to the auction block. But when Colorado shut down its 485-bed Fort Lyon prison in the rural southeastern part of the state, the community was reluctant to let the facility—once a major source of area jobs—fall into disrepair. So instead, lawmakers decided to try something innovative: They turned it into a transitional housing facility for the homeless, with a focus on homeless veterans.
Still, clearly not every prison could or should become a housing facility. "One thing that's unique about Fort Lyon is that it was never built as a prison—it was built as a hospital. It looks more like an Ivy League college setting than a prison," notes Colorado Coalition for the Homeless president John Parvensky, whose organization is now helping run the facility. Long before Fort Lyon became a prison in 2001, it served as a sanatorium for soldiers with tuberculosis, and eventually a Veterans Affairs psychiatric treatment facility. "It's not clear that taking folks off the streets and putting them in a prison-like environment would be acceptable," he added.
According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's 2012 annual report, Colorado experienced one of the highest proportions of unsheltered homeless families in the country, with 62.2% lacking any place to go. That same report showed that Colorado has had one of the largest increases in homelessness since 2011—and it's especially visible in southeastern Colorado. In Bent County, where Fort Lyon is located, the poverty rate applies to more than a third of the population, and veterans are more vulnerable than most. Veterans make up 7% of the country's overall population, but represent 13% of the nation's homeless.
"One of the challenges we face in the state of Colorado, and a growing challenge throughout the United States, is that our armed service members returning back from combat operations in and Afghanistan really didn't have a resource for them, and many of them were just living on the streets," Colorado state representative Leroy Garcia (D-Pueblo), a co-sponsor of the original bill to establish the homelessness program and who has also served in Iraq as a marine and mortuary affairs specialist, told Co.Exist. "In southern Colorado, somewhere around 12% to 14% are homeless veterans. One of the things we wanted to address is not just homelessness; homeless vets are homeless because there's an underlying issue, substance abuse, or [lack of] job training."
Passing the initiative to transform the prison into a homeless housing program with drug abuse treatment and job training took some political wrangling—the original house bill, co-sponsored by Garcia, passed with bipartisan support in the state's general assembly, but faced opposition from the Joint Budget Committee and failed when it moved through the state senate. At $16,813 per person, and $2.7 million overall through the summer of 2014, investing in Fort Lyon appeared rather expensive. But according to a Colorado Coalition for the Homeless study tracking the chronically homeless over eight years, leaving the homeless unsheltered racks up an even larger cost to society. In emergency hospital treatments, jails, detox, and other services, the Coalition estimates that taxpayers pay $43,240 per homeless person without shelter a year.
"We're confident that providing these services to individuals who would otherwise be boomeranging through emergency services across the state will see those reductions in cost," Parvensky said. He also added that Fort Lyon's housing-first model was only one part of a comprehensive solution—and that those who pass through the program would need support on re-entering their communities after the program. But by providing housing while treating underlying issues like substance abuse, Parvensky is hoping that Fort Lyon's program will work for the homeless who have seen other housing-first options fail in the past.
At the last minute, Garcia and Rep. Tim Dore (R-Elizabeth) were able to ensure funding for the program when they tacked it on as an amendment to another senate bill. The reinvented homeless facility launched early this month, and by July of next year hopes to serve 200 of the state's homeless population. Educators from Otero Junior College and Lamar Community College will provide job-training programs, and in the second phase of the program, Fort Lyon residents will be able to obtain housing vouchers from HUD. Decommissioned prisons may be great for experiencing mortal terror on Halloween, but perhaps turning them into homeless facilities can provide a better return on investment year-round.