Bob Coté, founder and president of one of America’s most innovative homeless shelters, Step 13 in Denver, died last Friday. Born 72 years ago, the 6-foot-3-inch ex-amateur boxer moved from early success to despair, but changed his life in 1983 when he decided not to drink his usual half-gallon of vodka for lunch. Instead, he poured out the bottle’s contents and began pouring what he had learned as a homeless alcoholic into a program that challenged rather than coddled men seen as hopeless.
I met Bob in 1995 when his shelter on Larimer Street (two blocks from where the Colorado Rockies’ ballpark now stands) already stood out as a privately funded place where residents made their beds, cooked their own meals, cleaned up afterward, attended Bible studies, and submitted to random urine screens and breathalyzer tests. He gained support from Denver business leaders and residents who were skeptical of liberal pieties and enjoyed Bob’s straightforward scorn for what he called “suicide on the installment plan” welfare programs.
Bob said it wasn’t “compassion to give a street drunk a bed and a meal and some money. He knows how to work the system too well. You’ve got to get him out of his addiction.” Step 13 took the insights of the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step program and emphasized a 13th: “Work works,” Bob said often. Residents who sobered up started out at minimum-wage manual labor jobs, then moved to positions with higher pay at local businesses that had come to trust Bob’s judgment. He required residents to have bank accounts, so they learned how to save. Those who were alcoholics had to take Antabuse, which produced nausea if they drank.
Bob saw the depravity of man but also knew from experience that even messed-up men could change. As residents progressed in work, their living conditions inside also improved: In the course of a year they could move from dormitory barracks to semiprivate and then private rooms, and on the way acquire furniture and phone accounts. When they were ready to leave they would know how to do everything that goes into having an apartment.
Several years ago Bob and I walked over to a Rockies game, past the car detailing business that he had set up behind the Step 13 shelter. Rockies fans could park their vehicles in a secure yard before the game and have Step 13 residents shine, wax, and clean their cars over the next three hours: Income for residents and an opportunity to turn baseball fans into Step 13 fans. Bob was straightforward about the failures: Year after year most of the men who staggered in from Larimer Street flunked out—but more went onward and upward through plain Step 13 than did so in government programs with bells and whistles.
One of Bob’s signs at Step 13 proclaimed, “The day you stop making excuses, that’s the day you start a new life.” Bob’s refusal to make excuses, for himself or others, is why, as Step 13 board of directors chairman Dean Dunn put it yesterday, “Bob Coté was loved by many; he was respected by even more.”