A version of this piece appeared in the Pueblo Chieftain.
As a paramedic, I’ve seen firsthand how devastating addictive drugs can be. I know that addiction has ripped apart families and devastated rural, suburban, and urban communities without regard for age, race, or income. I also know that the people suffering aren’t drug addicts – they’re our neighbors, veterans, friends, and even our family.
Sadly, Pueblo County has one of the highest overdose rates in the state. Of the more than 900 Coloradans who died at the hands of opioids in 2016, 40 were Puebloans. Drug addiction is a health crisis on its own, but it is also often a cause of homelessness.
Our resiliency and the strength of our community makes Colorado, and Pueblo in particular, so amazing. It is in our DNA to come together and persevere, no matter the issue. That’s what we’ve done in Pueblo – and will continue to do – in response to drug addiction and homelessness.
Thanks to the hard work of residents, advocates, community organizations, and elected officials at all levels of government, we’re making a big impact in the lives of those struggling with addiction and homelessness.
Five years ago, my colleagues and I fought to pass legislation that would help fight homelessness and drug addiction in southern Colorado. We had a vision for the creation of a program with a holistic approach that wouldn’t just address homelessness, but also its underlying causes: addiction, substance abuse, and a lack of job training and opportunity.
We executed that vision by securing millions of dollars in funding to convert the former Fort Lyon Correctional Facility into a transitional center for homeless people. The program provides residents with substance abuse support services, mental healthcare, transitional housing, and job training in a safe, tranquil setting. Since 2013, more than 700 people – many of whom are homeless veterans – have entered the program.
Despite some critics, a recent report from the state shows that the program at Fort Lyon is having a profound impact on one of our state’s most vulnerable populations. The report found that nearly 50 percent of participants got permanent housing when they left Fort Lyon, and another 29 percent moved into transitional housing. It also found that the average cost of is about $18,000 a person, less expensive than three similar programs. This program isn’t just benefiting patients, it is also growing southern Colorado’s economy by creating more than 100 jobs and generating more than $10 million in economic activity every year.
It serves us well to put money into something that we know has a great return on investment, and I’m encouraged by the initial findings regarding the program at Fort Lyon. Like all programs, we must examine its effectiveness to ensure it makes sense for tax payer dollars. We must also ensure that those who are suffering are able to get the treatment they so desperately need. It is incumbent on all of us to do everything we can to combat these issues, and in true southern Colorado fashion, that is what we have done and will continue to do.
Leroy Garcia is the Colorado State Senate’s minority leader.