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Work therapy in the greenhouse at Harvest Farm. Photo courtesy of Denver Rescue Mission

Colorado’s Harvest Farm Battles Addiction and Homelessness in Unexpected Ways

On a 100-acre farm in Wellington, men struggling with addiction and homelessness find that getting their hands dirty may be the best way to clean up their lives.

Six baby goats shelter beneath a piece of scrap metal that’s a slightly darker shade of gray than the sky, from which a cold drizzle falls. The rain doesn’t seem to bother Tony, a 2,000-pound bull resting in the dirt nearby, but there’s no sign of Harvest Farm’s resident turkeys, pigs, or donkeys. The landscape is flat in Wellington, an agricultural town about 12 miles northeast of Fort Collins, and the horizon is lost in the low clouds on this mid-April day. The 100-acre farm typically would be abuzz with human residents preparing for planting season. Instead, everyone has taken refuge inside.

In the chow hall, small groups of men sit at long tables and chat over burgers. They converse about work and life and all the other things co-workers typically talk about. Yet, these men aren’t conventional colleagues. They work at Harvest Farm, yes, but not to earn a living. They’re here for a new start. Harvest Farm is a recovery program run by Denver Rescue Mission (DRM) that helps men, up to 72 at any given time, struggling with drug and alcohol addiction and homelessness achieve sobriety, self-sufficiency, stable employment, and housing.

DRM—a nonprofit that works with individuals experiencing homelessness in the Denver metro area—founded Harvest Farm in 1988. The need for the program’s free, long-term services has grown more critical in recent years, though. Nearly 10,000 people are experiencing homelessness in Colorado, a number that rose by 2.4 percent in 2020. Fatal drug overdoses increased by 59 percent in the state last year, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. And National Coalition for the Homeless data show that 38 percent of individuals experiencing homelessness are alcohol dependent, while 26 percent are reliant on other substances. This worsening reality has made Harvest Farm even more vital, especially as men arrive on the property at younger ages—the current average is 41 years old—than ever before.

“A lot of people are self-medicating because they’re outside the system. They don’t have the stability of a home environment,” says Sara Fieldson, a case manager at Harvest Farm. “People don’t get to know them—they’re homeless and have substance use disorder, and that’s what people see first.” The road to recovery can often be a lonesome one, filled with meetings in church basements and nondescript therapists’ offices. Not here. Harvest Farm preaches achieving recovery by building self-worth and a supportive community—and by playing in the dirt.

(Read more: What It’s Like to Experience Homelessness During a Global Pandemic

Harvest Farm’s four- legged residents. Photo courtesy of Denver Rescue Mission

Taylor Reed is hungry. He’s driving through the rain to Harvest Farm’s admin building, where lunch from Panera Bread awaits, but the tall, brawny former high school quarterback couldn’t help himself—he snagged one of the burgers from the chow hall to tide him over. A smile spreads across his face. His brown eyes sparkle as he admits to this harmless bit of gluttony.

It wasn’t all that long ago that his indulgences were less innocuous. Growing up in the eastern Colorado town of Wiley, Reed drank heavily and used cocaine, eventually turning to heroin and methamphetamine. He tried to get sober, admitting himself for two 30-day stints at a rehab facility in Kansas. “As soon as I got out, it’d be a few months before I would relapse,” the now 29-year-old says. He tried to end his life by overdosing twice but survived. In 2018, he led the cops on a high-speed car chase that landed him in jail and, eventually, at Harvest Farm for treatment.

Like Reed, most of the property’s residents are battling substance use disorder (a term signifying that substance use is causing significant impairment in daily life); some have been chronically homeless. They may have been referred by parole officers, detox clinics, or their families, or they may have reached out on their own. They hail primarily from Colorado, but they arrive from as far away as Florida and North Carolina. Most have already been through one or two stretches in rehab. Harvest Farm’s application isn’t complicated, but participants must commit to the process. The only requirements for being on the farm are that they are detoxed and don’t have any sexual offenses or other severe violent offenses on their records.

Harvest Farm regularly adjusts its programming to better serve current needs. Recently, the staff has been gearing its therapies to address an increased prevalence of opioid use disorder and heroin and meth addictions. “There’s a significant rise of young men who are on a path of destruction that can get pretty severe pretty quickly,” says Seth Forwood, senior director at Fort Collins Rescue Mission and Harvest Farm.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency in 2017, and Colorado has not been immune to its devastation. “We think at least one percent of Coloradans could have opioid use disorder; it could be two percent,” says Dr. Robert Valuck, director of the Center for Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. That equates to nearly 100,000 people—people Valuck says can be helped. “Treatment works, but we have to do it right. We have to make treatment readily available, which it’s not,” Valuck says. “That’s why programs like Harvest Farm are so important—to give people a chance to survive.”

Harvest Farm residents progress through three phases: orientation, foundation, and transition. It’s a holistic approach that includes case management, life and career development classes, counseling, and Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings. Medication-assisted treatment for alcohol and opioid use disorders is available through a partnership with Front Range Clinic, an addiction treatment center. Spirituality is a major component, too; like all DRM programs, Harvest Farm is a Christian initiative, but people of any (or no) faith are welcome.

The men live together in dorms and are assigned care teams that oversee their progress. As they move through the program, they earn more privileges, from accessing their cell phones to getting rides into town. In the final phase, participants are encouraged to get jobs off the farm—sometimes with a boost from DRM’s community connections—so they can start saving money and building a network of support to help them succeed post-graduation.

Before they reach that final transition period, though, the men toil on the farm, learning new skills by joining the kitchen team and cooking three meals a day using ingredients grown or raised on-site; assisting with maintenance and landscaping tasks; or tackling agricultural chores, like caring for the livestock and maintaining the flora in the greenhouse and gardens. “The goal is for them to take ownership of what they do,” says Scott Newbold, the agricultural supervisor. “The lesson with addiction is that other things depend on you. What you do matters.”

This sort of experiential recovery can be life-changing for men who may not feel the same comfort sitting in a therapist’s office, who grew up in a rural environment, or who could benefit from a venue far removed from their previous city lives. At Harvest Farm, they’re gifted the freedom of space and time. It’s a way for DRM to help people beyond the urban core. The program lasts a minimum of six months, but many farmhands stay longer than a year. The land provides room to heal, and the animals are a therapeutic anchor. “Having the serenity and the space of a rural environment,” Forwood says, “it does a lot to address trauma symptoms in our men.”

Taylor Reed. Photo courtesy of Denver Rescue Mission

A year after graduating from Harvest Farm, roughly 70 percent of participants have maintained their housing and their sobriety, a significant measure of success. Reed is among the 147 men who have graduated in the past three years. He’s been sober since March 2018 and has been training to become a certified addiction technician and a certified personal trainer. He’s also one of Harvest Farm’s first peer leaders, as part of a new, grant-funded initiative that trains graduates to use their experiences to mentor current participants. Peer leaders live on the farm, though they typically also hold jobs off-site. Reed knows that re-entering the world beyond the farm’s fences is difficult and that setbacks are normal. He’s there, he says, to ease the transition: “I help them make baby steps toward being back out in society.”

It’s just after 8 a.m., and peer coach Dan Spencer, dressed in jeans and a red shirt, is reading from the Book of Philippians: “But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal….” He lowers his Bible and turns to face the men before him. He knows he needs to bring this ancient text into today. “When you feel alcohol and drugs knocking—press on. When you feel this place isn’t for you—press on. Stay the course,” he urges them. “You will be amazed at the blessings that will come into your life, but you’ve got to press on.” The men listen intently.

Among them is Justin. The 42-year-old, who didn’t want to share his last name, has only been at Harvest Farm for a month, but it’s his second time in the program. After spending nine months on the farm and graduating in May 2020, he took what he calls a brief “vacation” from recovery. His alcohol use escalated, and he found himself alone and, as he puts it, drinking himself to death in bed. Two of his closest friends from Harvest Farm persuaded the staff to let Justin return to Wellington.

Up to 85 percent of people with substance use disorder relapse. “It’s not something you get cured, like you broke your toe. That’s not how addiction works. The science is clear: It’s chronic, relapsing, remitting,” Valuck says. “Addiction is horrible and really hard, and if we don’t treat people long enough and don’t allow them to fail and stay in [treatment], then we have our heads in the sand.”

To that end, Harvest Farm’s leadership team launched a graduate returnee track in June for those who relapse within a year. Having a strong community there to pick a person up when those slipups happen, as one did for Justin, is vital to maintaining sobriety over the long term. “It’s a healing thing to be around people who accept you even with your faults and missteps. Some of our men have never been in a community like that,” Forwood says. “This is a safe place for them to fail.”

Although it’s unique in some ways, Harvest Farm isn’t alone in its approach. Residential rehabilitation centers that incorporate farming in some way can be found in Michigan, West Virginia, Vermont, and elsewhere. One of Harvest Farm’s biggest perks, though, is that it’s free to participants and not tied to health insurance. A July 2020 report by the Colorado Health Institute found that nearly 50 percent of people who said they needed substance use treatment did not access it due to cost: On average, 30-day inpatient rehab programs run between $15,000 and $27,000, which may or may not be covered by private health insurance, Medicaid, or Medicare.

If they could help more people access this free care, Forwood says, they would. However, DRM operates on donations, which can make growth an unpredictable process. For instance, DRM would be open to including a program specifically for women, but men are more acutely in need; data show men are more likely to experience homelessness in Colorado (and nationally) as well as to use illicit substances. While expansion is an ongoing conversation, there are some cost-prohibitive infrastructure issues that prevent DRM from growing the current Harvest Farm property.

A barn at Harvest Farm. Photo courtesy of Denver Rescue Mission

Steve Pietrafeso knows better than most how valuable Harvest Farm can be to restarting a life. Pietrafeso graduated in 2012 and now works as the farm’s evening supervisor and program coordinator. He’s been sober for eight years. He’s the guy who knows everyone’s story—and the one who reminds them that sobriety is possible even after they leave the fence-lined bubble of Harvest Farm.

Participants must achieve four metrics for graduation: sobriety, a steady income, community involvement, and stable housing. The housing piece has only become more difficult, as recent research from the National Low Income Housing Coalition and Colorado Coalition for the Homeless shows that the Centennial State is among the top 10 states with the least affordable and available housing units; for every 100 low-income households, there is a shortage of 70 affordable and available homes for rent. Pietrafeso doesn’t shy away from talking about these challenges, but he maintains that sobriety is the key. He’s fond of repeating: “Recovery is number one, and nothing else gets a number.”

Justin forgot that maxim for a short time but took a different tack this go-round. He focused on what he needed to do to stay sober. He was, he says, allowing himself to be vulnerable. It worked. Justin recently graduated from the farm and moved to Alaska. “I felt like I owed it to myself and God and my family and the people who let me come back,” he says. “I didn’t want to waste it.”

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