Theory and practice

National | So it's not great on paper, but a Denver mission gets it done

Issue: "Debunking Darwinism," Nov. 22, 1997

The World Series now a distant memory, baseball's Colorado Rockies will likely write the year off as a "club building" season. But in the shadow of the bright purple Coors Field, Denver's Step 13 will count it as a winning season.

Last spring, Bob Coté, who runs the rehab center for about 50 addicts and street people, was named "Skid Row Heretic" by the Denver Post. The weathered former drunk shows off the headline with the glee Ty Cobb might have taken in being called "baseball's meanest player."

But like Cobb, Mr. Coté has the best record out there; he can point to dozens of former clients who sobered up, went to work, and became productive citizens again. Denver's other homeless shelters-and there are plenty of them-despise him. And the feeling is mutual.

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"I have no use for the poverty industry," says Mr. Coté, a big man with big hands and an inability to remain motionless. "The poverty industry says that one size fits all; you can take a guy who's been under bridges, drinking, for 20 years, and turn him around in 90 days with baloney sandwiches. But it can't be done. It takes time, it takes accountability, and it takes someone who's willing to be realistic about who the homeless are. They're street predators, not your next-door neighbor."

But Denver is a stubborn city, he knows. The prevailing view of the homeless is seen in the list that is handed out at the shelters and churches, bus stations, and even some liquor stores. It directs people to as many as 18 free meals per day. It specifies and rates the meals: "ham/bol & cheese sand" at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception; "good lunch, nice servers" at First Baptist; "fabulous meal and goodies" served by Lighthouse Ministries. It recommends the "top-of-the-line spaghetti supper" at Grant Avenue Methodist, and it warns "be sober" before showing up at the Volunteers of America kitchen.

In fact, Denver is a great place to be flat broke and addicted. There are the Denver Rescue Mission, the Samaritan House, the Central Shelter, the Salvation Army shelter, a shelter at First Baptist Church, the Theodora House for women and children, the Sacred Hearts House, the Lambuth Center, and the Catholic Worker House.

Paradoxically, there's plenty of work to be had in Denver. The economy is booming, and the "help wanted" signs are everywhere. The City Parks Department found itself in a bind last summer because it couldn't find people to fill 100 service jobs paying $7.13 per hour. The local McDonald's restaurants start employees out at better than $8 per hour, including benefits.

The few "real homeless" (Mr. Coté's words) people in Denver are mostly families who come to the city looking for work; they're found sleeping in their cars at rest-stops or campgrounds, not under bridges surrounded by empty booze bottles.

But it's a statement like that which makes Mr. Coté a "heretic."

Denver residents who see the dueling "help wanted" and "will work for food" signs are beginning to listen to Bob Coté. He's becoming a popular guest host on a local AM radio talk show. More and more calls and drop-in visitors are coming to Step 13, which is located in the middle of a block on Larimer Street (Denver's Skid Row), to see what he's doing right. He shows them the bunks-that's where the men start out in his two-year program. If they're serious about quitting "the stuff," they're welcomed with a meal, a bed, and then a job.

A wino (Mr. Coté loves to throw around words like drunk and wino and bum-it further separates him from the homeless advocates) might start work in the recycling center at Step 13. Soon Step 13's "creative envy" kicks in; the "client" (as he's now referred to) sees men who have worked their way upstairs (figuratively and literally) to a better room, a better job, more freedom. That gives them a goal, Mr. Coté says. There are spiritual services (and a new chapel built on the second floor of this converted warehouse) and daily doses of Antabuse (a drug that makes one violently ill if mixed with alcohol). There are random drug tests and rules about picking up after oneself.

When someone wrote obscenities on the bathroom wall, Mr. Coté nailed the door shut for four days. The ACLU complained. But it worked; the bathroom has remained spotless since then.

"I admit that Step 13 doesn't work in theory," Mr. Coté says. "But it works in practice."


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