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James Allen Walker for WORLD

'Man on a mission'

Q&A | Fighting "suicide on the installment plan": Denver's Bob Coté knows a different way to help some among the homeless

Issue: "Africa, Inc.," Oct. 10, 2009

Bob Coté, 61, is a rough-hewn example of God's grace. He could have died a quarter-century ago in a Denver gutter, but his life changed and he's helped many others to change.

Q: Where and when did you take your first drink? I grew up in Detroit and took my first drink when I was 15.

Q: You graduated from high school and became a salesman because you wanted opportunities to drink. I'm not the brightest bulb in the lamp, but I figured I could sit in a bar and drink for three days and then sell hard for two.

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Q: You got married, then left your wife and two children and ended up in Denver. I was still drinking very heavily. I started a landscaping business because Denver didn't have any landscapers who knew what they were doing. I made a lot of money, saved 50-something grand, and decided to go up to Jackson Hole, Wyoming. I went there to drink and didn't return to Denver for a year.

Q: In 1982 and 1983 you were on the streets of Denver. How much were you drinking then? A couple fifths of vodka, or a fifth of vodka and 12 or 14 beers. Every day.

Q: What happened? I saw some men passed out. They had vomited on themselves. I had a moment of clarity, a miracle. God creates miracles to let us know we're not alone, and I've had so many it's unbelievable. At that moment I saw myself lying there. I said, "You're committing suicide on the installment plan. That is you, Bob." I took that bottle of vodka and poured it out. I didn't become ill, didn't go through detox. I became a man on a mission.

Q: What was the mission? I'd go out fishing for men every day. At night I'd go down on the Platte River where all the fires were, and the train yards were down there-that's where they would all gather.

Q: You rented an abandoned restaurant for $350 a month and started developing Step 13. Why the name? Twelve apostles. Thirteen original states. Not 12-step.

Q: How was Step 13 different from other homeless shelters and rescue missions? They probably had a planning committee and board of directors. My board of directors was the residents. I had no idea about business plans and so forth; all I had was the drive and the energy. I knew what I wanted to do because I knew what the problem was: Misdirected compassion was keeping those people on the streets and killing them on the installment plan, a little every day. It makes the giver feel good, but you're killing them.

Q: You're 35 in 1983. You've just started Step 13. You're building a reputation in Denver as someone who does not pass stuff out easily. When people initially came there, how would they make progress? They would come in-about 50 percent of them can't read or write, and that's still true-and sign an agreement that they would take remedial math and English and get their GED. We have a computer lab there now. Or if they have no skills whatsoever and have never had a job in their life, and there are those, then we would put them in one of the five businesses that generate about 70 percent of our income: car business, recycling, T-shirt and logo businesses, yard business.

Q: What is the physical makeup of Step 13? Downstairs I have two military-type dorms. If they're going to work, getting along with the other residents, and showing that they want to improve their lives, then I move them to the center of the room where they have a door and it's a little nicer. In the middle I have 36 single rooms with doors.

Q: People can literally move up from the basement. If they work they can go upstairs where it's a little bigger, the rooms are nicer, they have windows, and the place is immaculate. They want to get up there. I have 12 full-time employees, but really I have 52, because I have 40 people with a year or even two years, and they take ownership of Step 13. They'll say, "Hey, we don't write on the walls here," and the one time they did I nailed all the bathrooms shut and told them to walk to the Greyhound Station for two weeks.

Q: Nailed the bathrooms shut? That was 21 years ago, and let me tell you this: I'm a man of God, and knock me out of this chair, there hasn't been so much as a pencil mark anywhere on that building since. And if I had taken federal, state, or city money the ACLU could have made me open the bathrooms up, and that's why I don't take that money, because I think it can be done a lot cheaper than the millions and millions of dollars that the government spends on many things, let alone the homeless, with no results. They can't run anything.

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