December 10, 2013
CU Denver political science Professor Tony Robinson makes a point on homelessness at Buechner Breakfast

Now that Colorado has converted a former prison into a housing and retraining facility for the homeless — albeit 270 miles from Denver — the question becomes: How do we sustain it?

A panel discussed this challenging issue at the December installment of Buechner Breakfast First Friday. The Fort Lyon shelter, on 550 acres in Las Animas, opened four months ago to the chronically homeless, offering a path to education, employment and homes back in their original communities.

Panelist Tony Robinson, Ph.D., chair of the CU Denver Political Science Department, noted that remote facilities such as Fort Lyon have been used throughout history to care for the homeless. “Many times they start out at the highest of aspirations of uplift, but face long-term challenges because the people they serve are weak and vulnerable and don’t command resources and political attention,” he said.

Robinson was joined on the panel by Pat Coyle, director of the Division of Housing, Department of Local Affairs; James Ginsburg, director of Fort Lyon; and independent consultants Mike Green and Leanne Wheeler.

Ginsburg said homelessness is a complex problem that demands a continuum of solutions, not an all-or-nothing approach. While a remote facility may not be ideal for every individual, Fort Lyon is a response to realities.

“Coming out of a community for a time-limited period is the best intervention for some people as long as it’s open, as long as it’s voluntary, as long as it’s trauma-informed,” Ginsburg said. “It’s a place where you can come and go as you please and where the whole community is involved.”

Otero Junior College and Lamar Community College are involved in the education and retraining programs available at Fort Lyon. The shelter already has more than 100 residents, most from the Denver area.

Green got applause from the full Terrace Room in Lawrence Street Center when he said — in reference to Denver’s camping ban — “What kind of society are we creating where it’s against the law to not have housing in Denver?”

Robinson was the lead author of a study into the effects of the camping ban.

He said the Colorado Legislature “wasn’t excited about funding” Fort Lyon, noting that it was a hard fight to secure a couple years of start-up funding. “I think it’s a good idea and a great vision,” he said. “But how are you going to hold on to adequate funding, adequate staff, adequate political commitment long-term so that James Ginsburg, the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless and others can do good work to make this live up to the vision that we have?”

Wheeler is a living example of someone who turned her life around after finding herself homeless during the recent economic downturn. The software engineer and veteran is once again employed and prosperous, but having been on the streets, now is a tireless advocate for the homeless and Fort Lyon.

While public opinion has it that laziness and substance abuse cause homelessness, Wheeler said it’s more about economics: too many people simply can’t afford housing.

Wheeler envisions that creative approaches — such as farming on portions of Fort Lyons’ 550 acres — will produce revenues to help sustain the innovative shelter.

“It’s my vision that we don’t go back to the government to ask for more money to sustain this program,” she said. “Without private-sector commitment and without help from the faith community … then we don’t get sustainment.”

The Buechner Breakfast series is coordinated by the Buechner Institute for Governance, which is part of the School of Public Affairs. The series will continue on Jan. 10.

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