Turning Addicts Into Workers

  • Prosperity
  • 1983

Bob Coté was clutching a vodka bottle one night when he saw three of his drinking buddies passed out on the street 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 his bottle into the gutter and decided to spend the rest of his life helping save fellow addicts. The 6-foot-3 former Golden Gloves boxer started Step 13. His rehabilitation center applied three simple rules: 1) No drinking or drugs. The organization devotes thousands of dollars per year to testing, and requires residents to take Antabuse, a medicine that causes nausea if alcohol is consumed. 2) Get a job. Step 13 has placed thousands of residents in dozens of local businesses, as well as in its own three in-house enterprises, which include a busy car-detailing operation. 3) Your bunk is your property. Residents must pay a modest weekly amount for their stay, keep their area clean, cook their meals, do their dishes, and otherwise live up to civilized standards.

As residents progress, they move from a bunk in the basement to a room with a door, then to an upstairs studio apartment with a lock. Many shelters for homeless alcoholics and addicts ask nothing of their residents but limit their stays to prevent long-term dependence. Step 13, by contrast, expects a lot, including rent and employment, but has no time limit at all. The average stay is a year or more as residents shake off their destructive addictions. The program’s veterans produce “constructive envy” in newcomers, spurring them to believe that they too can turn their lives around.

The shelter offers high-quality dental and vision care to clients who have often gotten little attention in these areas. Volunteer doctors use equipment donated by philanthropies to provide checkups and corrections. Roughly 35 percent of the men who reside at Step 13 walk away from alcohol and drugs, a significantly better success rate than local government-run shelters. (Step 13 refuses all government funding.) Moral support and spiritual counseling is a big part of the program. Coté, who died in 2013, maintained that “without the chapel, my success rate would drop in half. Even once you get a job and a home, you still need a purpose.”

Colorado billionaire Philip Anschutz was one of Step 13’s early backers. He walked uninvited into the shelter in its young days and wrote a check. A decade later it was Anschutz who provided a few hundred thousand dollars to help Coté buy the shelter’s property after Step 13 lost its rental lease.

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