(from December 2010 Celtic Connection newspaper)
The Christmas season often brings out the best in folks. More people are inclined to want to help someone in need. Maybe they’re compelled to pull the car over toward the homeless looking man on the corner with the sign that says, “Will work for food…God Bless.” and hand him some cash.
“Stop” says Bob Cote, fonder of non-profit Step 13, Denver’s nationally recognized transitional living program, “Temper your compassion with some logic – homelessness does not mean helplessness.”
Cote, a former street person who beat his addiction to alcohol in 1982 and started Step 13 in 1983 to help other addicted homeless, said that without a successful structured system and the emergence of self responsibility, donations given to your average “homeless” person just helps to feed their addictions. “It makes people feel good to give a handout, but they’re not looking at the whole picture — especially around the holidays – they’ll give them (panhandlers) 10 dollar bills, 20 dollar bills and instead of buying a bottle of Mad Dog they’ll buy Smirnoff Vodka and literally kill themselves.”
The politics of compassion is another piece of the whole picture that Cote finds frustrating. “The governments credit cards are all maxed out, ‘entitlements’ for alcoholics and drug addicts are going to break the bank – that’s the truth. It’s a terrible, terrible, waste of money – millions and millions of dollars.” He gave an example of one homeless program backed by City government, “They give them (homeless) an apartment, $720 a month and take $110 of that for their rent. The rest of it they can do what they want with it, they don’t demand that they quit drinking and drugging, unless they ask for it – well for a dominant alcoholic or drug addict that’s a dream come true.” He remarked further on the fragile control under the government program, “Remember you have 500 people with a Masters in Sociology dealing with 2,000 street people with a Doctorate in ‘Streetology’ so you know who is going to win.”
Cote maintains that under that system, there is not enough positive or negative pressures to motivate the homeless and make a significant dent in the homeless population and suspects official numbers released on the subject are manipulated for political purposes. “They don’t know what they’re doing -It doesn’t change, they just fly those numbers all over – who knows how to verify them-figures lie and liars figure.”
Further making his point of contention he added, “You should fix people not just feed them – that should be your goal.”
Though Cote knows hard economic times like the present can attribute to more people in situations were they have lost their job, home, and assets, and they’re trying to get help back to where they were in life, but still he understands that the majority of the homeless are addicts that are gaming the system and/or breaking laws, with no desire to get off the street. “How can you stand out on a street or park for 12 years and never have a job and be high every day – you know your not dealing with an alter boy.”
Since Step 13 opened, thousands of homeless people have participated in the program have learned how to give-up their addictions and dependencies and become productive members of society.
There are on-site clinics that offer both eye and dental care from volunteer doctors
and educational programs designed to get people back into the workforce.
Much of the programs success is built around the demands and rules put in place by the street-wise Cote, but he is flexible to individual needs, skills and abilities. Health is
“That is why we do not set a time limit, as long as people are working within our rules.
The first rule according to Cote is that everyone is sober. “Some who come to Step 13 are high and need to be taken to a hospital or detox – when they come down off the drug they could go into a seizure and die without proper medical supervision. We’ll take them to the hospital according to how bad they are, then they can come back here when they’re well enough. Some take a couple of days, some take a week or more, depending on how sick they are.”
Not only do they get sober but they keep sober. “We screen for drugs and alcohol –
Which is getting to be quite a job cause we used to screen for alcohol, pot, heroin, and cocaine – now we test them for 12 different drugs, some that I can’t even pronounce.
As we’re speaking some 14 year old is downloading the recipe for some designer drug
that we won’t know about until there are deaths.”
If someone fails the screening it is not automatic dismissal, but there are consequences.
“You have to set the tone of what you will allow and what you won’t.” said Cote.
“If I catch someone drinking I’ll tell him, ‘You got 10 hours of community service or you can leave, it’s your choice – than you lose your job. 99 percent of them take the community service.”
Jobs are another must in the Step 13 program. “Everyone here works – we have five in-house businesses that employee quite a few of our residents or in those – the largest being our car business. A couple of years ago we began a Car Donation program because we felt it was a natural extension of our Auto Detail business.” Through that program people
can donate their old car, truck, motorcycle, or motor home.
A 24-7 labor force is available to businesses or private individuals. “Its a win-win because it puts these guys to work” said Cote, “Its kind of a litmus test, we get feedback from the supervisors to learn if they’re fooling around or what. That is important to know since we have outside sources that will hire them on our recommendations.”
Residents at Step 13 progress through a positive incentive structure at their own pace including their living accommodations. “They progress through a military type dorm, then to a single room, then upstairs to a bigger room and they all have to go to one meeting a week – and every day it’s in their face of guys buying a car, TV, computer, or something -that shows them that their life doesn’t have to be that way – its positive reinforcement that comes from their own.”
Step 13 proves that their system does work for those who have the desire to change for the better and work to break the cycle of dependency. Cote illustrated the point with a success story about 2 Meth (Methamphetamine) addicts who came into his facility 3 years ago. “Its real hard to work with Meth addicts – one was an addict for 10 years and the other for 14 years. They had Meth mouth and their teeth were falling out –we put them in our dental clinic and fixed their teeth.” They were taught work ethics and standards and job skills. “To make a long story short – Martin saved $34,000 dollars in two years and some months bought a home and got a $5,000 tax credit. Weeks later the other man, Adam who had saved twenty some thousand dollars, also bought a home.”
Martin still works at Step 13 as a steam cleaner for the car business. “He is an example to these guys who say ‘I can’t’ and give excuses –‘I was potty trained backward, I got an F in 3rd grade, the cops were jumping on me because my wife fried the chicken and didn’t bake it and I didn’t do anything but the judge sent me to jail.”
“When confronted with two guys who were about as low as you can go – and now they have purchased their own home, they have a car, a good job –they have no excuses, that’s why I say to them ‘homeless does not mean helplessness.’”
Of all the success of Step 13, Cote is proud that it has been accomplished without taking tax dollars. “We’ve never taken one dime of Federal, State, or City monies, none whatsoever.” They are around 52% self-sufficient without funding. If you would like to help us raise that number, have a look at their program and contact them below
2029 Larimer Street
Denver, CO 80205
Phone: 303-295-7837 303-296-9020
[email protected] www.step13.org