Budget Panel Questions Hickenlooper Homeless Plan

November 30, 2012

Hickenlooper aims to spend $10.5 million over three years to establish a housing, addiction treatment and vocational training program for the homeless at Fort Lyon

DENVER– Governor John Hickenlooper aims to spend $10.5 million over three years to establish a housing, addiction treatment and vocational training program for chronically homeless individuals at Fort Lyon in southeast Colorado.

Joint Budget Committee members want more specific information – and are not confident about taking on a 3-year project dependent on the state’s general fund, particularly with the potential impact of the impending federal “fiscal cliff.”  

Five million dollars has been designated from the mortgage settlement obtained by Attorney General John Suthers. The remaining $5.5 million would come from the state’s general fund in increments, including a requested $839,012 supplemental appropriation in the current budget, and additional appropriations in the subsequent two fiscal years.

The budget requests were made to the JBC this week by the governor’s Chief of Staff Roxane White and the Department of Local Affairs in presentations Wednesday and Monday, respectively.

When Hickenlooper announced the closure of the Fort Lyon Correctional Facility on February 15, 2011, he vowed to find another major employer in Las Animas. Within 48 hours, he dispatched White to Bent County to meet with local officials and citizens, and the governor toured the facility on March 2.

By May 2011, members of the governor’s staff had met a dozen times to explore viable options for Fort Lyon, and White and Bent County Commissioner Bill Long traveled to Washington, D.C. with an entourage to solicit support from members of Congress and officials of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and Department of Interior.

They had hoped to secure funding to support a housing facility for homeless veterans – but the VA funding failed to materialize. So the governor’s office broadened the mission to provide services to rehabilitate homeless people, giving veterans a high priority, across the state.

The ambitious program would house and treat about 80 homeless by July 2013, and expand to help 300 by 2015. They would live at the facility for one year and be transported to Otero Community College for vocational training; the school receives federal grants for agricultural studies.

The program also seeks Housing and Urban Development vouchers to pay for a year of housing at the facility and later, another year to afford housing rentals off campus.

White implied that the HUD vouchers had been secured, but later said the governor will travel next week to Washington, D.C. to negotiate funding for Section 8 housing vouchers.

After White referred to a committee meeting over the past two years with local, state and federal officials to find an optional use for Fort Lyon, state Sen. Kent Lambert (R-Colorado Springs) asked why the JBC had not been informed of the travel and meetings.

“What committee was that? Were those public hearings,” asked Lambert. “Are those meeting tapes available for public distribution? Are paperwork and correspondence with the federal government open for public disclosure?”

“It doesn’t seem like this has been publicly vetted until today,” said Lambert. “This comes as a surprise to me as well as the rest of the (JBC) committee.”

There is wide disparity in homeless statistics. According to HomeAid Colorado, there were 15,394 homeless individuals statewide in October, 72 percent were parents with children.

The Metro Denver Homeless Initiative’s Point-in-Time survey reported 3,814 individuals as homeless in 2012, 32 percent suffer from mental illness and 29 percent have substance abuse problems. Neither survey identified the number of veterans.

JBC member state Rep. Cheri Gerou (R-Evergreen) voiced concerns about the ability to hire and retain medical professionals in the rural area.

“I don’t know if the tail is wagging the dog,” said JBC Vice Chair state Rep. Claire Levy (D-Democrat).

Levy questioned whether the state could financially sustain the proposed rehab program and if it was created to also bolster the economy in Bent County.

“Would you really feel that the facility, with all of its maintenance issues, is the best place?” asked Levy.

Levy referred to a 10-year history of expensive and dangerous maintenance problems at Fort Lyon after it was purchased for one dollar in 2001 from the federal government when the VA hospital closed.

Then, Fort Lyon was slated to be a Colorado Department of Corrections facility for “medically fragile prisoners,” said White of incarcerated individuals suffering from old age health problems and others with mental illness.

Unmentioned were previous news accounts that, like the VA hospital, the DOC had struggled to attract and retain qualified medical personnel at the facility located 90 miles east of Pueblo.

According to Westword, prisoners were used to rehabilitate the buildings and some were exposed to asbestos. The DOC disputed these accounts, but inspection reports indicated asbestos contamination in “hot spots” in the soils and within buildings.

JBC members postponed voting on the appropriations requested until after a follow up review next month. The committee wants more detailed information about federal funding, the program, and documentation of ownership.

After the DOC moved from Fort Lyon on March 1, 2012, the original quick claim deed restored ownership to the federal government. White said there were studies done on the cost of maintaining or selling the 500-acre property, but that the federal government would eagerly give it to Colorado.

“The federal government would go there yesterday,” said White. The state, she said, would like to see the federal government become a partner by providing grant money and HUD vouchers for the rehab program “before (they) just walk away.”

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