DENVER – An aging former prison in southeast Colorado is unusable for many purposes and should be turned into transitional housing for the chronically homeless, state budget-writers were told.
The governor’s office is asking for $840,000 – and an additional $6 million or so during the next two fiscal years – to repurpose the former Fort Lyon Correctional Facility in Las Animas. The prison was closed last year because of a declining prison population.
The fences are down at the century-old facility, but officials have struggled for two years to find a new life for Fort Lyon. The former Veterans Affairs hospital was a major employer in rural Bent County, and lawmakers were told that the federal government won’t take Fort Lyon back and that the aging property shouldn’t be just boarded up and abandoned.
“We have a facility that is going to be expensive even if we mothball it,” said Roxane White, chief of staff to Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper.
Fort Lyon was envisioned as a treatment facility for up to 200 homeless people who would receive job training and mental-health and drug treatment. White said veterans would get priority to move to Fort Lyon, which would be operated by the nonprofit Colorado Coalition for the Homeless.
A presentation to lawmakers on Thursday showed leafy scenes at the historic Fort Lyon campus, with a description of the former prison as “a fresh and safe environment for homeless individuals to begin a sustainable path to recovery.”
But lawmakers from both parties seemed skeptical: What if the homeless people don’t want to go?
Democratic Sen. Mary Hodge asked about “push-back” from homeless veterans uninterested in moving to Bent County. Republican Rep. Cheri Gerou wondered whether Fort Lyon could be seen as a modern-day “pauper’s prison.”
“I would not want to see us taking these people against their will,” Gerou asked.
White insisted that Fort Lyon residency would be completely optional, not a return to institutionalization of the poor and mentally ill.
“We would never force someone. We would never have anyone court-ordered to this facility. We would not go down that historical route,” White said.
Democratic Rep. Claire Levy wondered about expensive upkeep at the old prison.
“Would you really feel that this facility, with all its maintenance issues, is the best place?” Levy asked.
White countered that building a new residential center for the chronically homeless would be more expensive. And she pointed out that the people of Bent County want something done with Fort Lyon.
“They want this facility,” White said. “If you know of another community across this state who is opening their arms to 200 to 300 homeless people being moved into the community, I’d love to know where it is.”
The Joint Budget Committee didn’t act on the homeless proposal for Fort Lyon. Lawmakers must approve the $840,000 by the end of the year to proceed with the governor’s plan.