Last week, the nation lost a true champion of civil society with the passing of Bob Coté. Thirty years ago, Coté launched Step 13, a facility/program for addicts and alcoholics in the midst of the skid-row section of Denver.
There he was, available 24/7, and his presence was a continual reminder that an avenue was open to begin a change. A former alcoholic himself, Bob knew the streets and had firsthand experience of the demons that could dominate and devour a life.
That’s where his passion came from—and that’s why he could sense anyone who was not being straight with him and had no problem calling them out on it. That’s also why the hallmark of his outreach was tough love.
Step 13 enforced strict rules, and Bob laid out clear expectations for his residents. Everyone had to stay sober and contribute in some way—reciprocity was key. As years went by, he launched a number of successful businesses—including car detailing, graphic design, and a rent-a-worker service—that employed his residents and gained a reputation for reliability.
“What most homeless people need is help breaking an addiction and a way to build their self-respect,” he said. “Blind compassion does nothing to promote their self-esteem and self-respect.” His experience made him critical of the one-way handout system that characterizes much government welfare. His maxim was: “Handing a dollar to a drunk just helps him stay drunk, and any program that takes responsibility away from a capable person dehumanizes that person.”
He was incensed by a culture of victimhood, pity, and purported “compassion” that enables addicts to continue their self-destructive behavior. He made that clear to anyone and everyone. John Stossel interviewed him and asked, “These poor people who lived at the bottom of society—now you’re going to injure their dignity more?” “No!” Bob retorted, “I’m going to lift them up! I’m going to pull them out of that gutter! I’ve been on the streets: I know what to do. I give them a shovel and tell them to get to work.”
He traveled to Washington, where he lectured a panel of Senators about the dangers of simply issuing checks to addicts and alcoholics and declared, “You are helping them to commit suicide on an installment plan.”
Coté’s Step 13 program is designed to restore responsibility and dignity. Residents begin sleeping in a communal bunk room. But as they take on more responsibility, they work their way into a private room and then an apartment. Men who enter the program with hardcore addictions emerge as caring spouses and parents and responsible employees. Many are now homeowners, and some have even launched their own businesses.
These men are of Bob Coté’s living legacy, a testimony that change is possible and that, in Bob’s words, “Homeless does not mean helpless.” His impassioned mission and his example live on as an inspiration to all.