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Colorado Weighs Reopening Psychiatric Hospital For Homeless

Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, center, exits the Fort Lyon Correctional Facility in Las Animas, Colo., on Wednesday after touring the facility. Hickenlooper has proposed closing the facility due to budget concerns.
Andy Cross
Denver Post via Getty Images
Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, center, exits the Fort Lyon Correctional Facility in Las Animas, Colo., on Wednesday after touring the facility. Hickenlooper has proposed closing the facility due to budget concerns.

Last summer's mass shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., led Gov. John Hickenlooper to call for stricter gun control and big new investments in mental health care.

Several significant gun bills passed, and a package of mental health reforms is moving forward. But there may not be enough support to win funding for 300 new inpatient psychiatric beds.

That proposal by the Democratic governor would bring mentally ill and addicted homeless people to Fort Lyon, at one time a psychiatric hospital for veterans and then a prison. The facility, near the tiny town of Las Animas, has been closed for two years.

Under the plan, people would leave the streets of the cities where they live now and voluntarily come to Fort Lyon. And the town would welcome the jobs that reopening the facility would create.

Jack Simms, who's been homeless in Colorado Springs for a decade, says it's needed.

"I see it, man. They need to open some beds somewhere, at a mental health facility or something," says Simms, who says he struggles with depression and smokes pot to cope. "I can survive out here, [but] these mentally ill people, it's rough. They just walk up and down the paths. They look like zombies. I'd be a guinea pig. I'd try it out."

Kathleen Tomlin used to work as an administrative assistant at the old psychiatric hospital, a veterans facility. It's several miles past Las Animas' one stoplight. Dozens of empty buildings surround an old parade ground, giving it the feel of an empty college campus.

"When I started, there were over 600 employees," says Tomlin as she tours the building she used to work in. "That was in 1973."

"This was a good place because it was soothing," she adds. "It was relaxing. It wasn't like a big city, metro area. [Patients] loved it and they would get attached. And some of them still see me and they say, 'Oh, I miss Fort Lyon.' "

But the movement to deinstitutionalize the mentally ill meant jobs dwindled at Fort Lyon, and businesses closed in Las Animas.

Tomlin says people here used to take pride in working at Fort Lyon and they would like to see the hospital and the jobs come back. She's cautiously optimistic now that state lawmakers like Rep. Joann Ginal, a Democrat from Fort Collins, are backing the governor's bill to reopen it.

"I can't think of a better use for a historic campus, and also a place that is going to help improve the lives of many people," Ginal said.

Hickenlooper's idea is that the homeless mentally ill people who volunteer to come to Fort Lyon will get housing vouchers they can use to live elsewhere when they complete treatment.

But not everyone thinks that this plan is going to do a lot of good.

"Having someone in transitional housing teaches people how to manage living in transitional housing," says Sam Tsemberis of the nonprofit Pathways to Housing. "But then they have this huge hurdle, the re-entry problem."

Tsemberis says research shows that renting apartments for homeless, mentally ill people in the neighborhoods where they are, and getting them treatment there, works better than shipping them off someplace.

"You could skip all that transitional stuff, and go right to graduation from the street," Tsemberis says. "Give the support services, and you wouldn't have to go home by way of Fort Lyon."

There's value to that approach, says John Parvensky, head of Colorado's Coalition for the Homeless. He's worked for years to get local housing and treatment programs funded. But he supports Fort Lyon reopening, because prior to the governor's proposal nobody was talking about pouring millions of dollars into any help for people living on the streets.

"It's not really a question of either-or: Should the state support community-based options or should they support Fort Lyon?" says Parvensky. "They really should be doing both, but historically they've been doing neither."

The governor's proposal faces a tough hearing at the state Senate Appropriations Committee on Friday. Opponents on that committee point out that there's only funding for it for two years. But backers of the idea are optimistic they can find more money for future operations.

Still, opponents inside and outside the Legislature say trying to combine economic development with helping the homeless won't do either well. Colorado would be better off, they say, helping Las Animas find a new industry and spending money on housing and mental health services at the neighborhood level.

This story is part of a partnership between NPR, Colorado Public Radio and Kaiser Health News.

Copyright 2013 CPR News

Eric Whitney
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