Bob Cot

Against all odds, Bob Cote finds himself in a suspended state of grace. "How else to explain why I'm here?" he wonders. "It's been a series of miracles." More than merely being here, though, these days Cote, the ex-alcoholic president of Step 13, a shelter for homeless men on the shabby outskirts of LoDo, is one of Denver's hottest properties.

It was not so long ago that he was getting beat up for his no-free-ride approach to rehabilitating drunks--"I was always being called 'mean-spirited,'" he recalls. But today Cote finds himself surfing a wave of popularity among conservatives captivated by his no-government, no-excuses style of social reform. Ten years ago he was pawning his van to pay the rent on the Step 13 building; now he testifies before Congress regularly, and his speeches to adoring think tanks bring in $2,000 a pop.

Success, even in the homeless business, has its rewards. Once a bloated skid-row drunk, Cote in 1998 is tanned and well-dressed (navy blazer, vest, white turtleneck, chinos), resembling a tennis pro more than an inner-city social worker. He has become an economically middle-class man with a top-shelf Rolodex, and he relishes the recently acquired luxury of name-dropping. (Ask about the story of his thick-accented receptionist informing him he had a call from the president and Bob saying yeah, right, and telling him to take a message, and it really was President George Bush, wanting to name him one of the Thousand Points of Light.)

His office walls are plastered with as many "best wishes" photos from politicians and athletes as any senator's. His desk is crammed with (clearly visible) thick, thoughtful welfare-reform tomes with important-sounding names like Rediscovering American Values, Reinventing Government and Government: America's #1 Industry. He has a subscription to the Wall Street Journal.

The things Bob Cote is saying about the homeless nowadays are what people want to hear--a serendipity that is not lost on him. He has become a speechifier, and his answers to questions are likely to veer off into broad position statements on welfare reform, Social Security and the evils of bureaucracy. The phrases that at first seemed refreshingly heretical and original--"Social Security is suicide on the installment plan"--are starting to sound a bit shopworn as they appear more and more in USA Today and the Washington Times. (Some of them--"A hand up, not a hand out" and "Real change, not spare change"--Cote has actually trademarked.)

Yet if anyone has earned the right to bask in a little media sunshine, it is Cote. He ran away to Denver from Detroit in 1978, leaving behind a young wife and two children, and started a successful lawn-care business. Later he became a salesman, but the real love of his life was vodka. "It has the most kick," he says. "And it didn't make me sick. I tried them all, but I liked booze, and I liked vodka best."

By November 1983 he had been a resident of Denver's skid row for two years. In what has become the bedrock of his personal lore as well as the foundation of his professional credibility, one day he poured out the contents of his bottle of vodka and walked away from alcoholism. Soon after that, he started Step 13 in a Larimer Street flophouse.

From the beginning, Step 13 departed from the standard treatment of bums. Cote has never taken any government money (although he has in the past relied on generous private donors; Phil Anschutz wandered in one day and coughed up $25,000 for an on-site chapel). More unusual, however, is what Cote demands of his clients. To him, "unconditional positive regard" is just a fancy catchphrase for coddling.

At Step 13, spiritual guidance is considered an essential component of recovery (the organization's name refers to Jesus and the twelve apostles), and Cote requires regular attendance at church services. "All the people here are looking for something to believe in," he explains. "And the only thing I know of is faith." You don't approve of the chapel? You can leave.

Work, too, is another ingredient of deliverance, and residents must labor to earn their keep at Step 13. The hundred or so men who occupy the building at any one time pay rent for their rooms, which increase in comfort and luxury as the tenants prove their personal advancement to Cote. (Some manage to save their earnings, and Cote has plenty of stories about former bums using fancy computers and driving BMWs.) There literally is no free lunch at Step 13.

Drug tests are random and frequent; alcoholics are required to go on antabuse, a drug that makes them physically ill if they drink. Slip up and you get punished. If you don't like it--again, you can leave.

Cote brought an entrepreneurial approach to social work, opening a recycling business staffed by Step 13 residents and, when Coors Field opened three blocks away, a parking lot where fans can leave their cars to be cleaned and detailed during games. Step 13's annual budget is $400,000, about 70 percent of which is generated by the businesses. (The remainder comes from donations and grants.) Cote says that he plans to open his third enterprise, a T-shirt-distribution venture, within a couple of months.

Cote's been-down-and-on-the-street resume has left him free to mock less-strict recovery programs and the traditional "victim" view of bums, rather than just go quietly about his libertarian brand of reform. "I am a very controversial person," he boasts. Want to know why you see the same beggars with the cardboard signs standing on Speer Boulevard? Because they're making enough money to make it worth their while. Give a guy a free lunch with no expectation of getting any commitment to change in return, he says, and that's exactly what you'll get--nothing.

For years Cote worked eighteen-hour days and slept on a cot in a tiny room off his office. He now lives in his own home and keeps fairly regular hours, but he still gets reminders that there's a price to pay for his past transgressions and lost years.

Married at seventeen and divorced five years later with two children, Cote admits he wasn't much of a father. In 1987 he received a call from his former mother-in-law telling him that his eldest daughter, Shelly, was using cocaine. Within hours Cote caught a flight out of Denver and then drove to a posh Detroit suburb where Shelly was staying with her boyfriend. He stuffed her belongings in a trash bag and hauled her back to Denver.

Applying the same uncompromising tough-love approach he used with Step 13's men was difficult--"You've got to be careful with blood," Cote says--and Shelly backslid several times (thanks in part to Cote's gift of a credit card: The card was in his name, and the first bill included a $200 charge to a Vail liquor store. "How stupid can you be?" Cote remembers asking her).

Eventually, though, Shelly came clean; today she lives in Denver and works closely with Cote as operations manager at Step 13. "I had a lesson to learn," she says simply of her recovery.

Even though Cote seems to be riding a rising tide of success, the job of trying to bring religion and sobriety to Denver's homeless is in some ways getting harder, and Cote can sound nostalgic for the past. "The bums and hobos then were a group of great, great guys," he says. "They were appreciative of what you did for them, and there was a camaraderie. Now it's all 'me' instead of 'we.' Today your drunks are younger. They're self-centered, and they don't have a mutual respect for each other. The happy-go-lucky skid-row bum--the clown--is gone."

Cote, however, is here to stay. He claims he was invited to open a string of Step 13 rehab centers across the country but is quite content to remain in Denver. "Ten years from now, I plan to be right here," he says. "God willing.

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Eric Dexheimer
Contact: Eric Dexheimer