Delancey Street Foundation

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Delancey Street Foundation
MottoWhere hitting bottom begins the climb to new heights.
Formation1971; 48 years ago (1971)
FounderJohn Maher, Mimi Silbert
TypeCalifornia public-benefit nonprofit corporation
HeadquartersSan Francisco, California
Key people
Mimi Silbert (co-founder, president)

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

The Delancey Street Foundation, named after the Delancey Street neighborhood of New York City, a settling place for immigrants at the turn of the 20th century[1][2], began in a San Francisco apartment, in 1971.[3]

John Maher, a self-proclaimed "bum" and drug addict, and a former member of drug rehabilitation program, Synanon, was the principal founder, with three friends from Synanon, and the help of attorney Mike Berger. Maher once said, "I could either be a bum or a great social leader. I failed as a bum, so I had no options." The project drew inspiration and methods from Synanon, from which Maher had parted ways after realizing that members were not expected to ever leave.[4]

Maher couldn't get a loan from a bank, and 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. When neighbors discovered there was a re-educational environment in the neighborhood, several formed a committee to have Delancey Street evicted.[2] Within a year of its founding, the Delancey Street community had grown to 100 members.

In December 1972,[citation needed] Maher met Mimi Silbert, a Boston-bred criminologist and psychologist from UC Berkeley. Silbert began helping Maher structure the foundation. Maher and Silbert also became romantically involved.[5]

In 1974, Delancey Street was instrumental in gaining the release from prison of Wesley Robert Wells. Wells went into the prison system at 19 years of age and in 1974 had been incarcerated for 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 was paroled into the custody of Delancey Street, where he became a resident, and died a year later of natural causes.[6]

In the 1970s, Maher and the foundation became closely linked 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 in the Farm Workers' convention, where Maher gave a speech.[citation needed]

Maher became friends with one of San Francisco's renowned artists, Dugald Stermer, art director for Ramparts magazine. Dugald became a print media advisor and eventually a councilor, and moved his studio to Delancey Street's Embarcadero Triangle complex. Dugald was involved until his death in 2012. Another Bay Area notable, KSAN-FM radio jock Stefan Ponek, joined Delancey's board of directors. 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 to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

During the latter half of the 1970s, Delancey Street acquired an old "dude ranch" in New Mexico, and over the past 40 years has opened facilities in New York, Southern California, North and South Carolina, and Massachusetts. Between 1989 and 1990, the Embarcadero Triangle, a mixed use development with commercial space and 177 apartments on the San Francisco waterfront, was built by Delancey Street members. By 2002, there were 500 residents.[7][3]

In 1985, Maher left Delancey Street due to personal problems, including an arrest for drunk driving, and Silbert took over running the foundation.[8] Over the years, she has received numerous awards for her foundation work. As of January 2015, Mimi Silbert and six residents from the early 1970s, Abe Irizarry, Jack Behan, Tommy Grapshi, Stephanie Muller, Jerry Raymond and Teri Lynch Delane, have remained to help run the Foundation.


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.

Rehabilitation model[edit]

Silbert refers to Delancey Street's approach as mutual restitution: "The residents gain the vocational, personal, interpersonal and social skills necessary to make restitution to the society from which they have taken illegally, consistently and often brutally, for most of their lives. In return Delancey Street demands from society access to the legitimate opportunities from which the majority of residents have been blocked for most of their lives."[1]

The model integrates three areas of development:[1]

  1. Academic instruction: residents earn a high school equivalency degree (GED), and then may pursue higher education, including through an in-house Bachelor of Arts program.
  2. Vocational training: residents learn three vocational skills, one manual, one clerical/computer and one interpersonal/sales.
  3. Social training: residents help others in the community through various volunteer activities.

The model is educational rather than therapeutic, and functions as an extended family rather than a program. The central "each-one-teach-one" principle has residents teaching other residents, there is no professional staff. Traditional family values stress work ethic, mutual restitution, social and personal accountability and responsibility, decency and integrity. Economic self-sufficiency and social entrepreneuralism are cornerstones. One project developed under this model is Delancey Street's headquarters, the Embarcadero Triangle, a $50 million, 400,000 square foot multi-use development, covering an entire city block on the San Francisco waterfront, completed in 1990. Silbert was the developer, Delancey Street the general contractor, and some 300 largely unskilled residents handled construction, learning on the job. The four-storey complex includes retail stores, a restaurant, a screening room, a café bookstore and art gallery, and housing units for 500.[9][10]

The minimum stay at Delancey Street is two years, while the average resident remains for almost four years. Any act of violence, or threat of violence, is cause for immediate removal from Delancey Street. 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. There is a complete ban on alcohol, drugs and threatening behavior.[3]

In 1998, Delancey Street launched the Life Learning Academy, a San Francisco Unified School District charter high school, "committed to creating a nonviolent community for students who have not been successful in traditional school settings".[11] School capacity is about 50 students, with small classes of, typically, six to eight students. In 2018, construction was begun on a 6,000 square foot dormitory, to accommodate up to 20 live-in students, with free room and board.[12]

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.[13] Classes were taught on-site by volunteering university professors and community leaders. The curriculum was the same as for regular on-campus students, while courses were offered free of charge.[14]

As of 2008, there were over 14,000 graduates of the program.[15]

Residential communities[edit]

Delancey Street operates six residential education communities in the US, located in San Francisco (headquarters), Los Angeles, San Juan Pueblo, New Mexico, Brewster, New York, Greensboro, North Carolina, and North Charleston, South Carolina, and an arts training facility for program graduates, in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.[16]


Delancey Street creates and runs business enterprises that serve as training schools and generate operating revenue. Since 1972, these companies include catering and event planning, restaurant, café, bookstore & art gallery, corporate private car service, digital print shop, handcrafted furniture, ironworks, plants & glass, ceramics, landscaping, moving and trucking, paratransit van & bus services, screening room, specialty advertising sales, and Christmas tree sales and decorating.[17] Delancey Street is also chartered as a federally-insured credit union.[2]

From its inception, Delancey Street has been financially self-sustaining, and does not accept government funding. As of 2003, about half of the $15 million annual operating costs came from business income, supplemented by donations.[18] 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.[19]


  1. ^ a b c Gartner, Allen; Riessman, Frank (1984). The self-help revolution. New York: Human Sciences Press. ISBN 0898850703. (excerpt: A Process of Mutual Restitution by MiMi Silbert
  2. ^ a b c "Credit Union Chartered For Rehabilitation Group". New York Times. Oct 15, 1973. Retrieved 10 September 2018.
  3. ^ a b c Howard, Bob (6 September 2000). "Charm school for offenders". BBC News. Retrieved 10 September 2018.
  4. ^ Johnston, Tracy (15 August 1976). "A mix of Mafia and Little Sisters of the Poor". New York Times. Retrieved 15 September 2018.
  5. ^ Overend, William (January 31, 1988). "A Guru's Fall From Grace". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 10 September 2018.
  6. ^ "In jail 46 years, man wins parole". New York Times. July 8, 1974. Retrieved 10 September 2018.
  7. ^ Jane Gross, “San Francisco Journal: Where Life's 'Losers' Are Building New Lives”, New York Times, March 1, 1989
  8. ^ Overend, William (4 December 1988). "John Maher; Founded Program for Addicts in San Francisco". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 10 September 2018.
  9. ^ "FAQ". Delancey Street Foundation. Retrieved 23 September 2018.
  10. ^ Bradley, Inman (11 August 1991). "The Embarcadero Triangle" (PDF). San Francisco Examiner. Retrieved 23 September 2018.
  11. ^ "About". Life Learning Academy. Life Learning Academy. Retrieved 11 September 2018.
  12. ^ Tucker, Jill (March 9, 2018). "Treasure Island high school to add dorm for students 'no one else can reach'". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved 11 September 2018.
  13. ^ Bee, Adrianne (Spring–Summer 2004). "No Longer a Dream". SF State Magazine (San Francisco State University). Retrieved 2019-04-21.CS1 maint: Date format (link)
  14. ^ Tanya Schevitz, “Rising from the ashes: Recovered addicts earn college degrees”, San Francisco Chronicle, June 10, 2004
  15. ^ Wang, Jennifer (October 29, 2008). "Lessons Learned at 'Harvard for Losers'". Retrieved 2019-04-21.
  16. ^ "Our Facilities". Delancey Street Foundation. Retrieved 10 September 2018.
  17. ^ "Our Enterprises". Delancey Street Foundation. Retrieved 10 September 2018.
  18. ^ “San Francisco Foundation To Help Set Up Program For Ex-Offenders”,, February 24, 2003
  19. ^ Jeremiah A. Hall, “Non-Profits Make Strides in Start-Up Arena, Christian Science Monitor, March 10, 2003

External links[edit]