Ft. Lyon is 85 miles east of Pueblo. For seven decades it was a psychiatric hospital, and then for ten years operated as a prison. Its future is up for debate.

(Photo: CPR News)
State lawmakers from both parties are getting behind a bill that promises to ease two persistent problems: urban homelessness, and rural unemployment.

The bill to move 300 homeless people with mental illness off city streets and into a former prison near Las Animas has won House backing. 

The Senate could hear the bill as early as this week

It has momentum and the backing of the Governor, but critics inside and outside the capitol say trying to combine economic development with helping the homeless is a bad idea.

CPR Health Reporter Eric Whitney has the story. 

This is a transcript of Eric’s story.

CPR Health Reporter Eric Whitney: Ft Lyon is kind of hard to describe. It’s 85 miles east of Pueblo. For seven decades it was a psychiatric hospital, and then for ten years operated as a prison, but it looks more like a turn of the century college campus than anything else.

It’s not just one building, it’s lots of buildings. Some of them are huge old patient dorms and wards. Nearby, dozens of houses where staff used to live sit on long, tree-lined streets.

To John Parvensky, Ft Lyon looks like opportunity. An opportunity for the state to start spending some money on the homeless.

Parvensky: Colorado’s one of the few states in our country that do not have dedicated funding to help any of the homeless population, let alone the chronically homeless population. 

Reporter: Parvensky is head of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. He says about a third of people living on the streets suffer from mental illness, another third struggle with addictions. And for them, help is hard to come by, because, Parvensky says, the state also underfunds mental health services.

Parvensky: If you’re living under the bridge, it’s very difficult to get your needs met on an outpatient basis.

Reporter: So the plan to spend $7 million over two years on a housing and mental health program for the homeless at Ft Lyon sounds like a great idea to Parvensky. It would turn just one of the big empty buildings into a rehabilitation center. People living on the streets could volunteer to go there. They’d stay for three months to two years, and could earn a housing voucher to use elsewhere when they leave. 

Fields: I think it’s a great idea.

Reporter: That’s Arapahoe County Democrat Rhonda Fields on the House floor.

Fields: Everything that that homeless person would need will be at that facility. So I believe that this is a great approach to address homelessness in the state of Colorado, plus it’s a jobs bill. 

Reporter : Fields is one of the bill’s 39 House co-sponsors, a dozen of whom are Republican. 

Several lawmakers like the bill because it promises about 50 much-needed jobs. The neighboring town of Las Animas long relied on Ft Lyon’s payroll when it was a hospital and then a state prison, but the state closed it in 2001. 

Not everybody thinks creating jobs is a good enough reason to open a homeless program at Ft Lyon. Sam Tsemberis is a psychologist and nationally recognized expert in helping people with mental illness escape life on the streets. He says this bill sounds like the wrong approach. 

Tsemberis: I was filled with a bit of sadness, seeing a town come up with a solution for its economic problems that relied on importing people who are poor, in order to serve them in this town to help bolster that economy. 

Reporter: Tsemberis, and other leaders in the mental health field say they’ve seen programs like this before, well-intentioned re-cycling of old buildings to help the homeless. But they say research shows that transitional housing projects, where people earn future housing by completing a therapy program, actually don’t work very well.

Tsemberis: You could skip all that transitional stuff, and go right to graduation from the street. And you wouldn’t have to go home by way of Ft Lyon. 

Reporter: Tsemberis says that if the ultimate goal is to get people off the streets for good, and living back in the community and not in institutions, its actually cheaper to just rent them apartments and provide services in their neighborhoods.

Tsemberis: Having someone in transitional housing teaches people how to manage living in transitional housing, but then they have this huge hurdle, just like when people come out of prison, the re-entry problem. 

Reporter: John Parvensky, head of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless says that people getting their own place and access to nearby counseling works for some people, but not everybody. He says Colorado needs institutions, too.

Parvensky: So it’s not really a question of either/or, should the state support community based options or should they support Ft. Lyon? They really should be doing both, but historically they’ve been doing neither. 

Reporter: Colorado’s Senate now gets to decide whether the state needs an institution for the homeless, and if so, whether Ft Lyon is the right place. If they decide it is, they’ll be overriding the state’s budget writing committee, which has said the bill in play seriously underestimates the actual costs of re-furbishing and occupying such an old facility.