Delancey Street Foundation

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The Delancey Street Foundation, often simply referred to as Delancey Street, is a nonprofit organization based in San Francisco that provides residential rehabilitation services and vocational training for substance abusers and convicted criminals. It reintegrates its residents into mainstream society by operating various businesses - such as restaurants, catering and moving companies - all of which are wholly managed and run by the residents themselves. The foundation's methods have been widely praised and have been emulated internationally.

John Maher, founder of the Delancey Street Foundation. Pacific Heights, San Francisco~1973


John Maher was the principal founder of Delancey Street in 1971 with three friends from Synanon and the help of attorney Mike Berger. Maher (1940-1988) was a self-proclaimed "bum" and drug addict and former Synanon member who was the subject of two books, John Maher of Delancey Street by Grover Sales and Sane Asylum; Inside the Delancey Street Foundation by Charles Hampden-Turner; a 1974 segment of 60 Minutes, "Love Thy Neighbor"; and a 1975 television movie, Delancey Street: The Crisis Within. Mimi Silbert (Co-founder), a Boston-bred criminologist from UC Berkeley, began grant writing for the foundation in 1972. Maher once said, "I could either be a bum or a great social leader. I failed as a bum, so I had no options."

Since Maher couldn't get a loan from a bank, he borrowed a thousand dollars from a loan shark for start up funds. They lived in a small apartment on Bush Street and then raised enough money to rent the Egyptian consulate building in San Francisco's posh Pacific Heights neighborhood. Maher offered the Egyptians fifteen hundred dollars a month. Maher said, "They told me they wouldn't accept a penny less than a thousand a month." Once the neighbors discovered there was a re-educational environment in the neighborhood, several formed a committee to have Delancey Street thrown out. Maher responded by buying the former Russian consulate building two blocks away at Pacific and Divisadero, and then an apartment building half a block from "Egypt," the name the foundation gave the consulate building. They named the Russian consulate, "Russia," and the other building was the "Estonia" building. When they purchased the El Portal hotel at 8th Avenue & Fulton Street, they named that building, "Egypt." But it eventually was simply known as "The Club," because it was the main gathering place for the residents.

In December 1972, Maher met Mimi Silbert, a criminologist. Mimi and John fell in love, and Ms. Silbert began helping Maher structure the foundation. In the mid 80's, Maher left Delancey Street and Ms. Silbert took over the running of the foundation. Over the years, she has received numerous awards for her incredible work at Delancey Street. The minimum stay at Delancey Street is 2 years while the average resident remains for almost 4 years – drug, alcohol and crime-free. During their time at Delancey Street, residents receive a high school equivalency degree (GED) and are trained in 3 different marketable skills. Beyond academic and vocational training, residents learn important values, and the social and interpersonal skills that allow them to live successfully in the mainstream of society.

Any act of violence, or threat of violence, is cause for immediate removal from Delancey Street. Interestingly, former gang members, who have sworn to kill each other, live and work together peacefully starting in dorm-rooms and moving up into their own apartments. Residents learn to work together promoting non-violence through a principle called “each-one-teach-one” where each new resident is responsible for helping guide the next arrival.

Maher became friends with one of San Francisco's renowned artists, Dugald Stermer, the art director for Ramparts magazine. Dugald became a print media advisor and eventually a councilor and even moved his studio inside Delancey Street's multi million dollar triangle complex on the Embarcadero. Dugald was involved up unto his death in 2012. Another Bay Area notable, KSAN-FM radio jock Stefan Ponek, joined Delancey's board of directors.

In 1974, Delancey Street was instrumental in gaining the release from prison of Bob Wells. Wells went into the prison system at 19 years of age and in 1974 had been in prison 46 years, longer than anyone in California. Seven of those years were on Death Row in San Quentin. The campaign slogan was, "46 Years is Enough." Wells became a resident and died a year later of natural causes, and as a free man.

In the 1970's Maher and the foundation became fast friends with Cesar Chavez and his organization, the United Farm Workers. In 1975 Delancey residents worked as part of Cesar Chavez's personal security team, marching in the "Thousand Mile March", culminating at the Farm Workers' convention. One source has stated that "John and Cesar were the same guys in separate bodies." [1] John's few minutes long speech brought the convention to its feet in thunderous applause. Maher was excellent at delivering a speech.

Bill Maher, John's younger brother, who was a resident, got a law degree, ran for and won the presidency of San Francisco's school board, and then was elected the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

Delancey Street owned and operated several businesses. A construction company, an automotive repair service, an advertising marketing sales department, a restaurant on Union Street (Now at Brannan and the Embarcadero), a moving company and an indoor decorative plants company. These companies helped to not only serve as training schools, but as money making businesses to help support the program, since Delancey Street did not accept or rely on government stipends. During the 1970s, Delancey Street was awarded a liquor license for its Union Street restaurant and also a Federally insured Credit Union. With the help of donations, Delancey has been self-sustaining for over forty years.

Within a year of its founding, the Delancey Street community had grown to 100 members. By 2002, there were 500 residents in San Francisco, living in a self-contained group of 177 apartments known as, "The Triangle."[2] The complex was built between 1989 and 1990 by Delancey Street residents.[3]

The later half of the 1970s, Delancey Street acquired an old "dude ranch" in New Mexico and over the past forty years has opened facilities in New York, Southern California (the defunct Midtown Hilton hotel on Vermont Street in Los Angeles in 1993), as well as North and South Carolina, and Stockbridge, MA.

As of January 2015, Mimi Silbert and six residents from the early seventies Abe Irizarry, Jack Behan, Tommy Grapshi, Stephanie Muller, Jerry Raymond and Teri Lynch Delane have remained to help run the Foundation.


As of the early 1990s, the average Delancey Street resident has had 12 years of drug addiction, has been in prison four times, is functionally illiterate, unskilled and has never worked for more than six months. "People who have become involved with gangs, drugs, violence, crime . . . those are our favorite residents," Silbert said in 1993. In 2000, the BBC reported that “All of the staff are ex-offenders who, on average, have each been in prison four times and used drugs for more than ten years.”[2]

In spring 2000, through San Francisco State University, a cohort of Delancey Street students embarked on an innovative program, with several earning a BA in Urban Studies in 2004.[4] Classes were taught on-site by university professors and community leaders.[5] There is a complete ban on alcohol, drugs and threatening behaviour by residents.[2]

As of 2003, about half of the $15 million annual operating costs of the organization came from a variety of businesses it owned and operated.[6] As of that year, more than 10,000 ex-cons and the homeless had been provided with housing, food, and a job at one of the many businesses the foundation operated.[7]



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