Why Denver is trucking its homeless to the middle of nowhere


Jason Cline says his stay at Fort Lyon has already done what no other rehab program could. (Matthew Staver/The Washington Post)

LAS ANIMAS, Colo. — The first time Jason Cline smoked crack was in rehab.

He was 15, there by court order after he was caught using meth. There were other firsts, too.

“The first time I did a lot of prescription pills that I didn’t know what they were, was inrehab,” Cline remembers, almost disbelieving. “People are trying as hard as they can to smuggle in drugs. They’ll hide them in all sorts of body cavities. Think about that the next time you do a line of coke.”

The next 13 years of Cline’s life in southwestern Colorado were a blur of banned substances. After nine root canals to remedy the ravages of meth, he grew addicted to painkillers. Later, as a high-rolling wholesale pot distributor, he made enough money to support a $500-a-day heroin habit. It wasn’t sustainable: Last year, the business fell apart, and he ended up squatting and strung out in Durango.

This spring, an ex-girlfriend found him destitute in an apartment where he hadn’t paid rent in months, and a clinic referred him to Fort Lyon. Cline arrived at the sprawling former Veterans Administration hospital campus, 200 miles southeast of Denver, in early June.

This trip through rehab, he sensed immediately, would be different.  All 200 formerly homeless addicts and alcoholics are there voluntarily. They don’t want drugs or booze around; the community strictly polices a zero-tolerance rule. Residents come or go freely, but there’s no compelling reason to leave; community college classes, AA meetings and family visits are all available on campus. The real world is far away: Nothing’s reachable on foot, besides a cemetery. The nearest liquor store is a 15-minute drive to the one-stoplight town of Las Animas. There are occasional shuttles, but no public bus service.

And unlike the typical 28-day or 3-month rehab program, nobody’s rushing him out the door. Fort Lyon, which began enrolling participants last September, anticipates they might stay as long as two years.

“The problem with this population is it’s decades and decades and decades, and it’s all they know. It’s a long way into the woods and it’s a long way out,” says James Ginsburg, the program’s director, who commutes in from Denver. Society thinks “you should go 30 days and you’re done. But we don’t tell that to diabetics.”

People are there of their own volition, and they apply peer pressure to make the time worth it.

“They’re giving it all they’ve got. The majority of people take this program very seriously,” Cline says. “If you want to go get high, get drunk, leave.”

So far, not many have: As of mid-July, 239 people had arrived, and 49 had left of their own volition, which program officials say is usually because they’ve recovered enough to return to their communities. 15 came back, and six were discharged for breaking rules.

In its length of treatment and isolation, Fort Lyon is something of a unicorn. The trend in homeless services over the past decade has been to house people as quickly as possible in the cities where they live, so they can have a stable place to recover while still immersed in the real world. That approach, called “housing first,” doesn’t require people to go substance free immediately in exchange for a shelter. It’s gained traction all over the country and an endorsement from the White House; some federal grants are now tied to whether cities use the model.

Fort Lyon, by contrast, looks like a throwback to the dark days of warehousing the homeless and mentally ill in institutions, where they wouldn’t bother urban dwellers. And yes, it’s convenient for cities that don’t know what to do with their most intractable cases.

But for that subset of the homeless population, it might be the only thing that can help: The place is remote, but also resolutely drug free.

***


Fort Lyon offers pretty much any treatment program an addict might want. (Matthew Staver/The Washington Post)

Early indicators of success aside, the reason the program at Fort Lyon exists is because of failure.

For about 80 years, the former military base had been a neuropsychiatric facility for traumatized veterans, but closed in 2001 after proving too expensive to operate. After that, the state Department of Corrections turned it into a minimum security prison, but that folded in 2011 after transportation costs got too high, since medical specialists are so far away.

Finally, Bent County partnered with the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless to create a kind of treatment that would remove people from everything that had enabled their addiction in the first place, and stay there for an extended period of time to make sure it’s really beaten. That’s more common for wealthy addicts, but people with no money have been expected to turn their lives around in vivo. Research shows that housing first programs can be highly effective, but none of them retains everybody. And Ginsburg thinks the slice that ends up back on the street needs a different approach.

“There is a certain population that is dying in the urban environment,” says Ginsburg,  who has a slight build and a quiet, blissed-out voice. “And they’re dying in supportive housing, because their addiction isn’t being dealt with.”

Carrying a dog-eared copy of the Alcoholics Anonymous manual, Ginsburg had just come from emceeing one of the few gatherings the facility makes mandatory: Three times a week, everybody files into the auditorium for announcements and other group business. Today, the meeting featured people who’d been clean and sober for 30 days, 60 days, 90 days, even six months, and got up to talk about it.

“My life was full of chaos, and the world was reflecting that back on me,” said one 60-day celebrant. “And then I had the chance to come here, and what I’ve been given here is the courage to find support, and listen to the love inside. And the world starts to reflect back the love, when you’re willing to accept it. So thank you guys.” The room erupted in raucous cheering and applause. (See sketches and stories from the veterans at Fort Lyon here).

Of course, the fact that they’re getting better in a facility far away in the southeast corner of the state is great news for Denver, too. About half of Fort Lyon’s residents are from Colorado’s biggest city, which has 11,000 homeless people. Although the numbers have been declining, as more resources flow into supportive housing, the level of chronically homeless people — who disproportionately struggle with mental illness and addiction — remains frustratingly high.

Denver’s ability to export its worst cases — and the temptation for other cities to do the same  – is discomforting to some homeless advocates who remember how things used to be.

Decades ago, the problem would’ve been dealt with simply and efficiently: The most incurable indigents would have been cleared out and warehoused in sanatoriums. Many of those were shut down to cut costs during the Reagan administration, and the emphasis of both clinical experts and government officials shifted toward housing the chronically homeless in individual apartments and supporting them with community-based mental health centers, which would eventually help them re-integrate them into society. That’s what came to be known as “housing first.”

Over the long term, evidence suggests that approach works, and is even cheaper than the lifecycle expense of homelessness. The state of Colorado pegs the cost of healthcare and higher rates of incarceration for homeless people at $43,240, vs. about $17,000 for someone in supportive housing. But the “housing first” program does require more up-front investment, and states haven’t actually been supplying funding for enough buildings and counseling services to solve the problem — especially for those who have serious substance abuse issues. As a result, more addicted and mentally ill people just end up in prison and on the street.

“LIke most things, the pendulum swung the opposite direction,” says Ginsburg, who considers himself a strong Housing First proponent. “It’s not all or nothing. This idea that everybody has to be in housing first, everybody has to be treated in vivo, is ridiculous. Housing First is sort of our biggest adversary, because it’s not Housing First. This is housing ready.” By preparing people to re-enter society through vocational education and extended treatment, the logic goes, they’ll be more successful when they finally do get their own place.

The person who pioneered the Housing First model and now runs the national nonprofit that promotes it is Sam Tsemberis. The Pathways to Housing director has just as much antipathy for Ginsburg’s project, which he doubts will help its residents integrate back into the environments they came from.

“You want to be in the neighborhood where you’ll be living, rather than outside where you won’t have to manage your temptations,” Tsemberis says. “I don’t think anybody who’s serious about services thinks exporting people out of Denver to get them to treatment and bringing them back will work.”

Fort Lyon, he contends, solves a political problem more than a homelessness one. “They have been desperate to turn that acreage into something that employs people,” Tsemberis says. “So I don’t see on what basis you can argue, other than that it’s good for creating jobs for a town that was in economic hardship, that it would make sense.”

It’s true that Bent County had no plan B for the 500-acre campus. The facility, which costs $3 million to $4 million a year to run, is not a huge economic engine; it only employs 24 people on moderate salaries, which would double when the resident population reaches its anticipated steady state of 300.

But could it solve another problem? So far, the fledgling program is ahead of other kinds of rehab, with an 80 percent retention rate for participants compared to the average 50 percent. The jury’s still out, though, on the other really important metric of success: Whether they manage to stay clean. But for many of the residents there now, it’s already made a difference like no other program could.

***


Jason Cline on Fort Lyon’s historic campus. (Matthew Staver/The Washington Post)

Take Jason Cline, the former marijuana grower. At Fort Lyon, he sticks out: He has a BA in philosophy, and spent less time on the streets than most of the residents, who are folks you might see camped out under bridges and on park benches in Denver. Standing in the hazy midday heat, smoking and swatting at clouds of gnats, he wears a “Hydrofarm”-logoed baseball cap — a reminder that, not too long ago, drugs were his profession, not just his weakness.

Cline started growing marijuana to pay the bills in college. He was good at it, learning the fine points of PH levels and cannabis varietals. The wholesale business grew quickly — and lucratively, before weed became legal in Colorado this year, which is expected to bring down the price — with grow operations in several apartments at once. The business expanded: He bought 35 acres of land for outdoor cultivation, exporting a good chunk of his harvest out of state. He pulled down $20,000 in good months, usually had about $75,000 in cash in a safe, and would drop thousands on a night out with friends.

After a while, though, the lifestyle got stressful. He didn’t use any of his own product, but harder drugs are everywhere in the pot business, and Cline picked up a serious heroin habit. He and his girlfriend at the time burned through about $1,000 a day worth of opiates.

“That’s where a lot of my money went, and I found that if I didn’t have drugs, I couldn’t do anything,” Cline says. “If I wasn’t on something to give me that energy, I couldn’t get up to do my work, so my grows fell apart.”

Eventually, so did the business: His partners cut him loose, he stopped making deliveries, had to sell his land to pay bills. Last fall, he ended up homeless in Durango, going through agonizing withdrawals. When he finally decided to get clean and go back to rehab, he found his old support system — mostly friends who also had drug habits — hadn’t been much help.

“A lot of people agreed with me, because they were like, ‘I noticed you weren’t looking good for the past few months,’” Cline says. “Well, why didn’t you tell me before? Were you just going to keep letting me destroy myself and not say anything? It’s not something that people openly talk about. I need to be around sober people to get sober.”

Now, there are plenty. Like Jaimie Batton, the meth addict from Colorado Springs who’d lost her two kids when she lost her apartment and had been on the streets for five years before finding her way to Fort Lyon. Or Robert Sorrell, who had been making good money installing industrial flooring before a rough divorce sent him into an alcoholic spiral and destitution in Denver. Or Anthony Kayganica, the army veteran who lost his construction job in Alaska after testing positive for marijuana and came back to live with his family in Colorado until they got tired of his drinking and kicked him out.

All three say they’ve experienced transformations they never could’ve pulled off back home. They’re taking classes hosted at Fort Lyon by the local community college, in fields like historic preservation and community health, thinking of the jobs they’ll look for when they leave. Cline’s plan: Stay for a year while he gets a certificate in welding, which could provide a steady income when he decides to go for his masters in social work to help people work through addiction themselves.

For now, though, Fort Lyon is still a refuge.

“It’s a lot easier here to be sober than what it is in the real world,” Cline says. “The outside world’s a jungle.”

Lydia DePillis is a reporter focusing on labor, business, and housing. She previously worked at The New Republic and the Washington City Paper. She's from Seattle.
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