Empowering People at Fort Lyon

I arrived at the fort late in the evening. I would be spending four weeks as a Lighthouse writer-in-residence on the Fort Lyon campus that serves as a supportive residential community for people who have struggled with homelessness and addiction to alcohol and/or drugs. Inside the women’s dorm where I would be staying, the institutional halls had been refashioned by the women who lived there—welcome signs and drawings on the doors, a day room with a fridge, a microwave, sofas and chairs that the women cleaned and tended daily, and homemade curtains dressing the large, metal windows. Two of the women escorted me down the hall and opened the door to a dorm that they, themselves, had made into a homey, freshly painted room with curtains and a string of tiny lights hung on the wall over the bed that made it look like a welcome party.

That night at 3 AM, the fire alarm went off, a piercing blare and strobe lights that had us all rushing out the doors for sensory relief if not fear of fire. We stood around the bottom of the stone staircase in our pajamas and coats for about half an hour. The quad, the size of a couple football fields, was majestic in the half-moon light. Large brick buildings, some with columns, faced the quad on three sides, giving the place the feel of a college campus. When they finally let us back into the building and I saw the metal fire doors still shut on either side of the hall, I felt the history of this place. It had been a prison and before that a VA hospital and a mental institution. That was when I realized how much the current residents had transformed the place.

I spent a lot of my time walking around meeting people and talking to them, mainly listening. Within just a couple days, the residents started telling me their stories when they had a chance to catch me alone at the microwave or in the stairwell or out on the quad or after class. They told their stories with candor and clarity, no drama, though sometimes with breath uneven or hands slightly shaking. Some of the stories were of childhood abuse or rape or violence, trauma that could be permanently devastating for any of us. And there were stories of deep loss and insurmountable grief. Stories of abandonment and stories of learning lessons of self-hatred instead of self-love at such a young age there was no defense. Many, very many, of these residents were just like me, but where I had gotten a break they had not. Their stories involved ending up on the street, losing loved ones, losing everything. And they told stories of their difficulties on the street—violence, frostbite that took fingers or toes, run-ins with the law. It became clear to me very quickly that every one of the residents had survived and overcome tremendous obstacles to get to Fort Lyon and to this new sobriety.

In the writing classes I held daily, I was thrilled to see the level of talent and the diversity of writing styles in the participants. And the willingness to engage fully with the writing and with the group—it was like their trials had led them to a place of openness, and their creativity was flourishing. The work they produced was excellent and the atmosphere and vibes in the writing group were more harmonious and receptive and nurturing than any I had ever been in.

During my four weeks there I probably talked with about half of the 200-plus residents. The ones who were willing to talk to me were intelligent and usually kind. They were grateful to be at Fort Lyon, grateful for the opportunity to have shelter and food while they focused on staying clean and sober there. They were getting practice, preparing for life back out in the world once they got their balance. They were grateful to have enough time, up to two years, to become stable in their sobriety, so that when they went back to live and work outside of Fort Lyon, they could have a good chance of being successful, a good chance to stay clean and sober.

One of the case managers explained to me that it costs the state of Colorado more than twice as much per person per year for homeless people to be on the street (between emergency room, medical, police, courts, and detox costs) than to be at Fort Lyon. And in 2017, Fort Lyon had a dropout rate of 38 percent, a lot lower than the national average for rehab programs. In my opinion, operating the facility at Fort Lyon is well worth it by every criteria, including a moral one. There are other organizations serving the homeless in other ways, but it was easy for me to see that for the people I met in my four weeks there, Fort Lyon was exactly what they needed.

There is very little that is mandatory for the residents at Fort Lyon. They have to stay clean and sober, and that is strictly monitored. They have to go to three community meetings a week that are informational or inspirational or both. During their first 30 days, they are required to stay on campus. And they have to attend a six-week substance abuse education class. After that, their time is their own. Most of the residents keep busy with various activities that they, themselves, set up—different support group meetings like LifeRing and Celebrate Recovery and other spontaneous groups with unique focuses. There are also many AA and NA meetings, and those groups, set up and attended by residents, pay rent for their meeting space at Fort Lyon, according to their tradition of being fully self-supportive. Residents can also take a shuttle to outside meetings. There is a creativity room at Fort Lyon, where many residents go to paint or build or let their imaginations be free, utilizing the stock of materials provided there. There is also a sewing room, a well-stocked library, a post office, a weight room, a gym with a basketball court, and an extension of Otero Junior College, where residents can take college classes right there at Fort Lyon. Some residents take a bus to La Junta for classes that aren’t offered at Fort Lyon. Residents do community service in the area, often in Las Animas or La Junta.

It was a very dynamic and diverse community that I found at Fort Lyon. In addition to all their activities, they also knew how to pause for a conversation. They were the most communicative people I have ever met. I was in heaven since I’m all about communication. It’s why I write. At Fort Lyon, all I had to do was show up—in the hall, on the quad, in the classroom—and communication happened constantly. Everyone I encountered there was fiercely working their own individual program for substance addiction recovery, customized for themselves by themselves—from newcomers who were giddy over the opportunity they suddenly had to seasoned residents preparing to leave after two years, sober and hopeful and sometimes sad to leave the place that had become home.

I recently read a 2017 article by Will McGrath in the Pacific Standard, where the co-founders of Fort Lyon, James Ginsburg and Phil Harrington, talked about this unique project. Ginsburg, director at Fort Lyon, who has worked in homeless advocacy for the last 25 years, said that “the vision for Fort Lyon was to let the needs of the people who came there drive the structure of the program, rather than create a rehab program and make people comply.” The way they set it up was to “allow those in rehab to direct their own recovery.” He spoke of “flattening the hierarchy, of empowering people, of inherent human dignity.” Harrington, associate director at Fort Lyon, said that “given enough time and space, people find their own way. He described a process he had witnessed time and again at Fort Lyon: People eventually came to realize that there was no one to fool, no one to please, no one to rebel against. Fort Lyon was simply a community of like-minded people trying to help each other.” In my time there, I could see that this unique approach was working for many residents.

My last evening there, some of the residents gave me a going-away party with a cake that said "Thank You" on it. The party was a joyful reunion of many of the people I’d been so lucky to meet and talk with and be inspired by during my stay there. I didn’t even know they all knew each other, but of course they did. Looking around the room, I could see they treasured their sobriety and were proud of what they were doing at this supportive place. They were being given respect and responsibility for their own sobriety at Fort Lyon, and they were stepping up to the plate. They were, and continue to be, an inspirational force in my life as I aspire to become brave and reach for my own goals and dreams and step up to the plate.

I feel fortunate to have had time with the residents at Fort Lyon and to have been in a fluid and dynamic writing group with some of them. I think we often surprised ourselves and each other with our writing. I’m thrilled that they are willing to share with you some of their writing over the next few days here on this blog.

Kathy Conde was our fall 2017 Fort Lyon Writer-in-Residence. She has received awards from Salem International Literary Awards, Crab Orchard Review, Munster Literature Centre, and CutThroat: A Journal of the Arts. She has received fellowship and residency support from Millay Colony, Playa, and Writing by Writers. Her work has appeared in Crab Orchard Review, CutThroat: A Journal of the Arts, New Poets of the American West, South Dakota Review, Southword, and others. She has taught writing in the schools and at a halfway house for teens at risk. She holds an MFA from Naropa University and is past fiction editor for Bombay Gin, Naropa’s Literary Magazine.