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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Now to Colorado and one proposal moving through that state's legislature this week. The governor is pushing for reforms to the state's mental health system. One idea involves reopening a psychiatric hospital in a remote part of Colorado, and letting the mentally ill homeless volunteer to go there for treatment.

Eric Whitney of Colorado Public Radio reports.

ERIC WHITNEY, BYLINE: On a bright spring day in downtown Colorado Springs, Jack Simms is having a cigarette outside of a church soup kitchen. He says there are too many people living on the streets who really need some help.

JACK SIMMS: I've been hardcore on the streets for a couple years now, and I see it, man. These mentally ill people, they just walk up and down the path, man. They look like zombies.

WHITNEY: Simms says he struggles with depression sometimes. He'd like to get help but Colorado has very few in-patient psychiatric beds for a state its size. Building new facilities is expensive and can draw resistance from neighbors.

But Colorado already has a big psychiatric hospital that's sitting empty, and its neighbors really want it to open back up again. It's three hours from Colorado Springs, even further from Denver, off of a lonely two-lane highway on the broad, flat prairie near the little town of Las Animas.

This is the stoplight in town?

KATHLEEN TOMLIN: The one and only. When we were in high school you would cruise Sixth Street - this is Sixth Street. Every building had a business in it. Now most of them are empty.

WHITNEY: Kathleen Tomlin used to work as an administrative assistant at the old psychiatric hospital, a veterans' facility called Fort Lyon. It's several miles past that stoplight in Las Animas. Dozens of empty buildings surround an old parade ground, giving it the feel of an empty college campus. Tomlin knows the security guard and he lets us in the building where she used to work.

TOMLIN: Boy, this brings back memories. There was another office there, and then my desk was over by those windows.

WHITNEY: But the movement to de-institutionalize the mentally ill meant jobs dwindled here, until Fort Lyon finally closed 12 years ago.

TOMLIN: When I started, there were 600 employees and over 600 veterans here. That was in 1973.

WHITNEY: These big, three-story red brick buildings were a mix of patient wards and offices. Across the campus are tree-lined streets with rows of former staff houses.

Tomlin says people here used to take pride in working at Fort Lyon. Now, she's cautiously optimistic that it'll re-open, since state lawmakers like Joann Ginal are backing the governor's plan.

STATE REPRESENTATIVE JOANN GINAL: I can't think of a better use for a historic campus. And also, a place that is going to help improve the lives of many people.

WHITNEY: Governor Hickenlooper's idea is that 300 homeless people from Colorado's cities will volunteer to come out here, to live and get mental health and substance abuse treatment. Those who complete the program will get housing vouchers they can use elsewhere.

But not everyone thinks that this plan is going to do a lot of good. Sam Tsemberis is with the non-profit Pathways to Housing.

SAM TSEMBERIS: Transitional housing teaches people how to manage living in transitional housing. But then they have this huge hurdle, just like when people come out of prison - the re-entry problem.

WHITNEY: Tsemberis says research shows that renting apartments for homeless, mentally ill people where they are, and getting them help in their neighborhoods, works better than shipping them off someplace to graduate from a treatment program.

TSEMBERIS: You could go right to graduation from the street to give the support services, and you wouldn't have to go home by way of Fort Lyon.

WHITNEY: There's value to that approach, says John Parvensky, head of Colorado's Coalition for the Homeless. He's worked for years to get local housing and treatment programs funded. He supports Fort Lyon re-opening, because prior to the governor's proposal, nobody was talking about pouring millions of dollars into any help for people living on the streets.

JOHN PARVENSKY: It's not really a question of either/or, you know, should the state support community-based options or should they support Fort Lyon? They really should be doing both. But historically, they've been doing neither.

WHITNEY: That sounds like truth to Jack Simms, who's been homeless in Colorado Springs for a decade. He says if somebody offered him a bed at Fort Lyon, he'd go.

SIMMS: If I had a place to stay and I could get the help I needed, I'd be a guinea pig. I'd try it out.

WHITNEY: But opponents inside and outside the legislature say trying to combine economic development with helping the homeless won't do either well. Colorado would be better off, they say, helping the town of Las Animas to find new industry, and spending money on housing and mental health services at the neighborhood level.

For NPR News, I'm Eric Whitney in Denver.

BLOCK: This story comes from a partnership with NPR, Colorado Public Radio and Kaiser Health News.

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