Fort Lyon started off as an Army outpost from 1867 to 1897. The Army abandoned it after that, and in 1906 it was reopened by the Navy as a tuberculosis sanitarium for marines and sailors.
In 1922, it came under the Veterans Bureau, later the Veterans Administration. In 1933 it was designated as a neuropsychiatric facility for veterans, and remained that way until 2001, when the federal government closed the hospital and turned over the facility to the state of Colorado.
It then became a prison for low-risk inmates from 2001 to 2011, although it had been proposed as a facility for medically-compromised inmates. That never happened, according to a county official
Dick Wadhams, former chair of the Colorado GOP and longtime Republican consultant, grew up in Las Animas. Everyone knew someone who worked at the hospital, he said. More often than not, it was a family member.
And those jobs were good-paying jobs and good for the local economy, he said. That included doctors, nurses and psychiatrists.
Frieda Alvarez wrote in an opinion piece for the La Junta Democrat last year that she and her husband, Louis began working at the VA in the late 50s. “I was amazed at all the benefits that Fort Lyon had that no other VA Hospital had. The most astounding part was the connection between employees and patients,” she wrote.
“During the summer, the hospital provided summer jobs for high school students in the valley.
On holidays, employees — with approval — would invite patients to have holiday dinners in their homes.”
Bent County Commissioner Kim McDonnell was the county’s economic development director in 1998 when rumors started flying that the hospital was going away. She told Colorado Politics that those who worked at the hospital “went to our churches, served in our civic organizations, went to our plays, and were part of the fabric of the community.”
The county benefitted in other ways: the hospital was the second-largest purchaser of power from the Las Animas Municipal Utility, she said.
When Hickenlooper announced the prison would close, the “whole valley was reeling” from job losses, McDonnell said. In 2005, bus manufacturer Neoplan, which had been based on Lamar since 1981, had just closed. Another major employer in the valley, Dean Foods, had shuttered its LaJunta facility the same year.
They looked for a way to bring sustainability to the Fort Lyon campus, McDonnell said. Fort Lyon has always been a place of healing, even in its earliest days as a hospital, when there was a part of the campus dedicated to soldiers who were struggling with substance abuse. “People in the community have embraced that, taking care of these folks,” she said.
When this opportunity presented itself, DOLA and its Division of Housing told commissioners there was a population of people dying from substance abuse. “What if there was a way to fill that gap? What if folks in this area could have the time and comprehensive surrounding to get to a place where their feet are back on the ground?”
Former Bent County Commissioner Bill Long was part of the team that looked at how to repurpose Fort Lyon.
“We looked at a lot of different options,” Long said. They settled on a facility to serve homeless people to help those “who had burned every bridge they could” and who hadn’t been successful in finding housing because of mental health or substance abuse problems.
A facility at Fort Lyon gives those people an opportunity to get distance between the person and the drug dealer or liquor store, he said.
In the first couple of years, Long said he got to know some of the Fort Lyon clients, some who managed to stay sober for six months but then fell off the wagon. “When you get to know somebody, it’s really challenging and heartbreaking. They do so well and then the wheels fall off and it’s permanent. “ He estimated a dozen Fort Lyon residents died in those first three years.
State lawmakers also raised concerns about repurposing Fort Lyon into a substance abuse facility early on.
Former Democratic state Rep. Claire Levy sat on the Joint Budget Committee during the time Fort Lyon was being repurposed. She said she spoke at length in JBC meetings about her concerns with the program. She learned that the state would be in “hot water politically” with the federal government if the campus was shut down permanently. That’s tied to the terms of the lease between the state and federal government; the state had to use it as a correctional facility or give it back to the feds, although whether the feds would want it back was another matter, she said. So they had to figure out a way to repurpose it.
“My impression from the beginning was that the tail was wagging the dog. We have to use this, what will we do, let’s run a homeless program” although the state didn’t have any experience in running homeless programs at the time, Levy said.
Another concern was that there was no experience with this kind of model, she added. “They were going to take people with very high needs, and try to serve them in a very remote location that didn’t have the kind of professional talent or knew how to deal with addiction and mental health issues.”
“We weren’t provided with sufficient evidence” on whether this would work, she said.
She toured the facility prior to its opening, and found another concern: the campus’s condition — including a lot of asbestos — and how much it would cost to make it habitable in a very short period of time. “I couldn’t imagine people living there that quickly,” she said.