“Worry is a fear you do nothing about.”
“Success is measured by how high you bounce when you hit bottom.”
“Obstacles are what you see when you take your eyes off the goal.”
“Whether you fail depends more on what you do to yourself than what the world does to you.”
These were the trademarked sayings of Bob Coté, the street-savvy founder of Step 13—one of America’s most effective organizations at scooping up alcoholics, addicts, and the homeless and helping them reclaim their lives. Known for his blunt style and adherent principles, Bob roamed Denver’s Larimer Street for 30 years, giving lost souls a chance at redemption if they were willing to take responsibility for their actions.
Guided by his vision that “work works,” and that it is not handouts but a hand up that the typical homeless person needs, Bob wielded simple daily employment as a weapon to break twisted cycles of addiction, blame, misguided charity, and wasted human potential. One former Step 13 resident, now married and sober, described Coté’s influence this way: “Bob’s a regular drunk from the streets. He’s not some therapist with a degree. He’s rough, tough, and gruff, but he’s got a heart of gold.” His focus was on self-support. “Any system that takes responsibility away from a capable person dehumanizes that person,” he warned.
No one doubted Bob’s sincerity or foundation to make bold judgments. A recovering addict himself, he poured a half-finished bottle of vodka into a gutter and walked away from alcoholism with a determination to start afresh, and help others do the same. This positioned him to be, in the words of former funder Bill Schambra, “tough as hell on phonies and hypocrites, especially the powerful, and infinitely loving to the fallen.”
As a non-profit leader, Bob Coté embodied a grassroots understanding that personal accountability must be central to philanthropy. From nailing shut bathroom doors to punish graffiti, to decrying disability checks for alcoholics as “suicide on the installment plan,” Coté ran his organization—and his life—with brutal honesty, color, and courage.
He broke down barriers between givers and recipients, treating all with the same blunt dignity. “Bob had a way of drawing top business and community leaders into the mission of Step 13, in a way that allowed them to get personally involved in the lives of the homeless,” says Daniels Fund president and CEO Linda Childears. He was as comfortable with kingpins as with drunks, as illustrated by a Childears recollection:
One of my favorite stories about Bob concerns the day President George H.W. Bush called him to let him know that Step 13 had been named to receive a “Thousand Points of Light” award. While Bob was on the phone with the President, a homeless man who Bob had kicked out of the program for violating the substance-abuse policy came up and started banging on the window of Bob’s office while shouting curses at him. Bob had to ask President Bush to hold for a moment while he went outside and told the homeless gentleman to come back another day. Bob was a truly remarkable individual and he will be greatly missed.
The very best way for philanthropists to keep the spirit of Bob Coté alive in the future would be to help others who have hit rock bottom find the inner strength to bounce back up with vigor and wisdom, as he did.