“They gave me an opportunity … to become a man.” That’s what a man of color, choked up, says from inside the business he owns on a video produced for the recent 30th anniversary of Step 13 in Denver.
And that’s why Step 13’s founder, Bob Coté, who gave this man that opportunity, despised the welfare state and declared in big letters on the front of his homeless shelter's building that his philosophy was "A hand up, not a hand out."
Coté had been a drunk himself, until one night when he saw three of his buddies passed out in the gutter with urine stains on their trousers. Standing in Denver’s Skid Row, he realized he was only a step away from joining them; so he poured out his bottle and decided to spend the rest of his life helping save fellow addicts.
In order to save them, he not only battled one-on-one with drunks and street addicts, telling them the truth about their lives and exhorting them to come to his Step 13 rehabilitation center. He also waded into the sweet-smelling squalor of Washington, where he faced down welfare state paladins like Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.). As he told me for a profile in The American Enterprise:
Congressman Joe Kennedy said, “Mr. Coté, don’t tell me about drugs and alcohol. I know all about the harms. I lost a brother to a heroin overdose.”
Coté answered, “Look Congressman, I’ll agree the Kennedys know a lot about drugs and alcohol, but I’m here to tell ya that this government plan is killing people, and you need to put a stop to it.”
“His face got real red, and he just went behind the curtain and took off. Then Maxine Waters picked up his anthem, said she was raised in the projects and was on welfare; then she started talking about the ‘triage of the modality.’ I said, 'I don't know what "triage of the modality" is. All I know is, the taxpayers shouldn’t be subsidizing addicts!”
Coté was testifying about the evils of Social Security disability programs, which at the time were happy to sign up any drunk or drug addict for monthly checks, because having a substance abuse problem means you are disabled and should receive money you can use to buy booze and drugs. Coté explained to the Members of Congress that he was most likely to find his homeless friends dead in the gutter with needles sticking out of their veins a day or two after their monthly check came.
He didn’t cite social science stats, although studies backed up this fact. Instead he punched away like the 6-foot-3 Golden Gloves boxer he was, using the language of morals, not statistics: “It’s wrong, wrong, wrong for taxpayers to be subsidizing addiction.” Coté didn't describe this government program as "compassionate." He said the Social Security Administration should be held responsible as "the biggest drug dealer in the country" and a "mass murderer." No wonder Coté refused all government monies.
If you don't know about this bit of welfare state history, here's a brief news report from 1994, courtesy of the Los Angeles Times:
The General Accounting Office reported last year that the number of substance abusers receiving SSI benefits had tripled from 1990 to mid-1993 and those receiving disability insurance payments had climbed by 35% over the same period.
"Clearly, the system is not working," added Rep. Gerald D. Kleczka (D-Wis.). He said that just 1% to 2% of beneficiaries "leave the disability rolls after rehabilitation treatment--they usually die first."
Congress eventually agreed to change the program’s rules, and Coté also helped to pass reforms that made the food stamp program somewhat harder to scam.
Coté got his chance to let Congress hear the truth about its “compassion” thanks to Bob Woodson of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, who sums up the greatest truth we can learn from Coté:
that there is hope, that there is nobody, regardless of their physical or psychological circumstance, who is beyond redemption.
Redemption is not a term you’re likely to hear a government bureaucrat use. The local government shelter that competes with Step 13 asks nothing of the homeless who come to it. That is to say, it quietly makes clear that it isn’t surprised you’re in the gutter, and it certainly doesn’t tell you you can escape that gutter and gain redemption. You just have to stagger through the door to be guaranteed a bit of food and a bunk. But at the end of 30 days, they will toss you back onto the street. The place, in short, functions as a warehouse of bad merchandise—you—and once your sell-by date is reached, you’re dumped out.
By contrast, Step 13 typically gives its people about 18 times as long to get on their feet, because it sets no time limit and its whole goal is to produce a real community, where people look after each other and uphold their own standards for behavior. At the beginning, Coté self-consciously created an upward ladder for residents, who could move up from a mere bunk in the basement, to a room with a door, to an upstairs studio apartment with a lock.
Like any humane community, Step 13 has rules and accountability: Don’t make your bed and you sleep on the couch. Don’t cook your own meals, you don’t eat. Don’t clean your room, you lose it.
While traditional government programs that serve the same difficult population have sobriety rates in the single digits, 38 to 40 percent of the persons who complete Step 13 achieve long-term sobriety.
One secret of Step 13’s success has been ignored by nearly all mainstream media profiles of it: God. As Coté told me,
God creates miracles to let us know we’re not alone.
Board member and KNUS radio host Peter Boyles confirms this view in the anniversary video, “I watched miracles happen over 25 years.” No wonder Coté told me,
Without the chapel, my success rate would drop in half. Even once you get a job and a home, you still need a purpose in life.
That chapel itself is a small miracle that shows how donors can be part of the Almighty’s plan. It only exists because early on in Step 13’s life, billionaire Phil Anschutz walked uninvited into the shelter and wrote a check to build it. Then, over a decade later, he donated a few hundred thousand dollars when Coté had lost his lease and was about to be thrown off the property. Famous for his own high-risk investments in difficult industries, Anschutz probably appreciated the way Step 13 keeps costs per resident to a fraction of the spending at government-run facilities, while it uses in-house businesses and the rents paid by residents to achieve 70 percent self-sufficiency.
Similarly, Colorado developer and philanthropist Steve Schuck is a long-time board member because he is “convinced” of the truth of Coté’s philosophy: “any system or program that takes responsibility from a capable person dehumanizes that person.”
That ought to be graven on the tombstone of our nation’s welfare state. But since what Coté called “the poverty Pentagon” is still going strong, it will have to serve as epitaph on Coté’s own grave marker. He went to the Lord on September 27.
Rest in peace.
FOOTNOTE: The Center for Neighborhood Enterprise's obituary for Coté is here; Step 13's obituary for him is here; the Philanthropy Roundtable's tribute is here. A local newspaper's anniversary tribute, explaining the role of Step 13's donors and board, is here. Step 13's website is www.Step13.org.