Skip to main content

Columnists Remarkable Providences

His eyes have seen the folly

His eyes have seen the folly

Private charity and challenge or Washington's "suicide on the installment plan"?

This month, as a new season begins at the Colorado Rockies ballpark in downtown Denver, junkies and winos on Larimer Street two blocks away are also celebrating the coming of spring. They have somehow survived the winter and will now once a month be able to celebrate "Christmas Day"-the day government checks arrive-by going on drinking or injecting sprees without concern about freezing to death.

The government-subsidized homeless shelters interspersed among the bars and liquor stores on and around Larimer merely enable alcoholics and addicts to remain in their state of sin and misery. But there is a better choice: Step 13, the privately funded creation of Bob Cote, a 50-year-old, 6-foot-3-inch ex-amateur-boxer who lived on the streets in 1982 and 1983, drinking a half gallon of vodka for lunch.

But God had other plans for Mr. Cote; one day, disgusted with what he had become, he poured out the contents of his bottle and began pouring what he had learned on the streets into a program that would challenge rather than coddle those who for too long had been seen as helpless. He worked and gained support to create a shelter where residents make their beds, cook their own meals, clean up afterwards, attend Bible studies, and submit to random urine screens and breathalyzer tests.

Now, after more than a decade of changing lives rather than providing small change, the step-by-step approach of Step 13 has proven its effectiveness. Residents who have sobered up start out at minimum-wage manual labor. Soon, they can move on to positions with much higher pay at local businesses that have come to trust Mr. Cote's judgment. Residents are required to have bank accounts so they learn how to save; those who are alcoholics must take Antabuse, which produces nausea if alcohol is consumed. Step 13 understands the depravity of man.

As residents progress in work, their living conditions inside can also improve. Step 13 has eating facilities and a chapel for all to use, but the three floors of sleeping areas are highly differentiated. Residents over a year move from dormitory barracks to semiprivate and then private rooms; on the way they acquire furniture and telephone accounts. When they are ready to leave they know how to do everything that goes into having an apartment.

Step 13 costs about $3,000 per man annually, one-fifth of what it costs to keep a person for only 28 days in some fancy detox centers. Residents pay about half of that from their wages, and donations take care of the other half. No government funds are used, and Mr. Cote is always on the lookout for entrepreneurial opportunities. This year he is starting up behind the shelter a car detailing business, so that Rockies fans can park their vehicles in a secure yard before the game and have Step 13 residents shine, wax, and clean them over the next three hours.

Step 13 is still far east of Eden. One of every three of the lowest of the low-the hardcore drunks, druggies, and drifters who stagger in from Larimer Street-comes out of Step 13 clean and stays that way, able to move on to the building of careers and families. Two-thirds flunk out. But a recent study by the inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services showed that 99 of 100 alcoholics and addicts who receive government benefits fail to recover or get a long-term job.

The benefit many addicts and alcoholics like best is SSI, Supplemental Security Income, which Mr. Cote calls "suicide on the installment plan"; he has documented how SSI checks are still mailed to homeless individuals' standing accounts at liquor stores. When disability checks are sent to those who daily disable themselves, government becomes Dr. Kevorkian on a grand scale. Nor is it compassion, Mr. Cote says, to "give a street drunk a bed and a meal and some money. He knows how to work the system too well. You've got to get him out of his addiction."

Mr. Cote's eyes have seen the folly of the coming of the state. His brain and hands, through God's grace, have opened up a truly new season for hundreds over the years. Expand the Cote approach to other cities, eliminate the government's "Christmas Days," and the lives of tens of thousands would be turned around. It can be done. As a sign at Step 13 proclaims, "The day you stop making excuses, that's the day you start a new life."