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In 1971 Delancey Street began with 4 residents, a thousand dollar loan, and a dream to develop a new model to turn around the lives of people in poverty, substance abusers, former felons, and others who have hit bottom, by empowering the people with the problems to become the solution.

John Maher and Mimi Silbert at Russian Consulate
Mimi Silbert and John Maher in front of the first home we purchased, the former Russian Consulate.

We began by taking residents into a small apartment in San Francisco, run by an ex-felon, John Maher, a visionary, fiery orator and charismatic leader. Rather than following the traditional non-profit model of hiring a staff and procuring funding, we chose instead to follow an extended family model. Those of us who could work did traditional jobs and contributed our salaries. (Mimi Silbert, for example, had a doctorate in Criminology and had numerous consulting, teaching and other professional experiences. She worked and contributed her salary.) Everyone did something to contribute to our community. Someone who could cook became our “head chef”. Someone who knew how to hold a hammer became the “head of construction”. Whoever could read tutored those who could not. We pooled our talents and our funds and within 2 years, we purchased our first building and had 80 residents, all learning, teaching and helping each other.

The first home we bought was the former Russian Consulate located in San Francisco’s poshest neighborhood, Pacific Heights. It was also our first “Not In My Backyard” battle. Our two young pro bono attorneys, Mike Berger (who incorporated our organization in 1971, and Danny Weinstein (now a retired Judge and founder of JAMS – The Resolution Experts) formulated innovative legal arguments; Maher developed brilliant political strategies; Silbert brought residents around to neighbors to volunteer services. We knew that neighbors were worried that crime would go up and property values would go down because we were in the neighborhood. So we patrolled the neighborhood and crime went down; our construction department renovated the mansion to ensure that property values would go up. Residents like Abe Irizarry (then a “graduate” of every prison in California and Mexican Mafia gang member, now our Vice president and Maitre’ D’ of our restaurant), and Joanne Mancuso (then an addict and now a college instructor and a trainer for the judiciary in the federal court in computer programs), and Mike Boris (then a heroin addict, now a Certified Public Accountant), sold raffle tickets where the most coveted prize was the promise “not to move next door to you”. Slowly the neighborhood battle was being won by being good neighbors, by solid legal arguments and political negotiation, by humor and by the good will of everyone involved. Dianne Feinstein, our neighbor in Pacific Heights, then a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, was the first key vote in our favor. By 1977, the battle was finally settled. When we moved from Pacific Heights to our newly self-built home on the waterfront (almost 20 years later), our Pacific Heights neighbors reported they were upset to see us leave.

Mimi Silbert and then San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein and then ILWU President Jimmy Herman break ground at the future home of the Delancey Street Foundation.

When we began construction on our new home, then Mayor Feinstein offered support at every level. She turned over the first shovel of dirt at our groundbreaking, and in 1990 we completed construction of an expanded and centralized home on the waterfront. In the process, we pioneered a new neighborhood in San Francisco, South Beach. This 400,000 square foot complex was primarily built and supervised by Delancey residents. President Mimi Silbert was the developer and Delancey Street was its own general contractor for this unique development called “a masterpiece of social design” by Pulitzer Prize winning architectural critic Allen Temko. Covering an entire city block, this four-story complex contains street level retail stores, a highly acclaimed public restaurant, a screening room written up as one of the top three in San Francisco, a highly reviewed café bookstore and art gallery, dwelling units housing about 500 that overlook a Mediterranean-style courtyard which also holds a vast array of educational and recreation facilities for the residents. This was an unprecedented vocational training program, providing over 300 formerly unemployable drug addicts, homeless people and ex-felons in Delancey Street every skill in the building trades (with the support of the Building Trade Unions) as well as training in purchasing, contracting, computer and accounting services. City officials were so proud that, upon completion of our complex, they renamed a section of First Street – Delancey Street.

In 1978 we bought a 17 acre ranch within a reservation on the San Juan Pueblo, in northern New Mexico and opened our first “satellite” campus. We brought 15 residents from San Francisco, ranging in stay from 5 years to 5 months and using the same process we started with in San Francisco, whoever could cook became the head of Food Service, whoever had held a hammer became the Head of Construction.

Receiving national certification for Delancey Street credit union (from left to right) Richard Kirschman, Sue Jones, Billy Maher, head of the National Credit Union Association Lt. General (Ret.) Herman Nickerson, Jr., Sukey Lillienthal, Mimi Silbert, Joanne Mancuso, Irwin Ritz.

In 1980 we bought a home in Brewster, New York, and repeated the start up process with 15 residents from San Francisco and New Mexico. In 1984 Jane Fonda let us temporarily use her home to begin a Delancey in Los Angeles. Later using the same start-up process, residents from other facilities re-built an uninhabitable apartment building owned by Santa Monica Hospital that they let us renovate in exchange for free rent. Finally in 1993 we purchased a 205 room hotel in midtown Los Angles and expanded that population to several hundred people. In 1987 we bought a gracious southern home in the Fisher Park neighborhood of Greensboro, North Carolina. In the future we plan to develop a program for residents talented in the arts to live and study in the new home we are just restoring in Stockbridge, MA in which Norman Rockwell lived and painted for many years. After that there will be a home in a location yet unknown where we will bring 15 residents from the other 5 locations, then select someone who can cook to become the Head of Food Service, and someone who can hold a hammer to be Head of Construction…

Along the way, we started business training schools like a moving school and a restaurant that would teach our folks marketable skills, encourage positive interactions between our residents and people in the communities where we lived, and provide funding for Delancey Street by pooling all monies we earned. In 1973 we were awarded a federal charter with the National Credit Union Administration as the first credit union run by and for ex-convicts.

John Maher about to address farm workers.
Mimi Silbert and Delancey Street residents training San Francisco police recruits.
Delancey Street's Insecurity Service.
Can you spot the shoplifter?

We became active in community issues. John Maher was a consistent speaker at Cesar Chavez’s Farm Worker rallies. Mimi Silbert developed police training programs where Delancey Street residents enacted simulated crime scenes and took the cases all the way through to moot courts to help train police recruits. We spoke at schools to do drug and crime and violence prevention, and took seniors on day trips. We developed a Delancey “Insecurity Service” where we used former thieves to teach business owners how to better protect their merchandise from future thieves. We were helping our community and our community was helping us. Doctors and dentists and hair stylists started volunteering services. Corporations starting donating products; friends donated money. People started using our moving school and buying trees from the lots we set up every Christmas. Our little moving school grew from one rented truck to some purchased big rigs and we began setting up Christmas tree lots up at every facility around the country as we garnered community support. Some of our first graduates were back in the community driving trucks and programming computers. Our academic classes started expanding from just high school equivalency to liberal arts college classes. We were struggling but we were slowly helping one another turn our lives around to become productive members of the mainstream of society.

There is no way to thank all the people who have made Delancey Street succeed. While our residents work hard and run the organization themselves, learning self-reliance and earning self-respect, we could never survive without the belief and support of all our friends. The littlest dab of yeast makes the whole loaf of bread rise.

More than 40 years later we remain true to our mission. We have been taking in as residents representatives of our society’s most serious social problems and, by a process of each one helping another, with no professionals, no government funding, and at no charge to the clients, we have been solving these problems: generations of poverty, illiteracy, lack of job skills, hard core substance abuse, homelessness, crime, violence, teen pregnancy, and emotional and physical abuse. After an average of 4 years (a minimum stay of 2 years), our residents gain an academic education, 3 marketable skills, accountability and responsibility, dignity, decency, and integrity.

Related Media
Rehabilitating futures (Daily Republic, 05/13/00)
"Second Chances" (Northern California Woman, 12/92)
"Rehab paradise for ex-cons, abusers," (San Francisco Examiner, 05/90)
"Delancey Street Foundation, At S.F. center, Ex-Cons rebuild desparate lives," (The Sacramento Bee, 02/90)
"Italian Look for Delancey Street Complex" (San Francisco Chronicle, 12/89)
Ricomincio da Delancey Street” (la domemica, 02/26/89)
"Rehabilitation center turns opponents into supporters." (Gannett Westchester Newspapers, 07/14/85)
The Stars Come Out for Delancey Street (California Living, 04/12/81)
"Therapy, Delancey Street Style: Pride, Productivity but No Paycheck," (San Francisco Magazine, 01/81)
"John Mayer and Mimi Silbert Among The Ex-Cons at Their Rehab Center," (People Magazine, 04/03/78)
"Ex-Con a Success as Rehabilitator," (Los Angeles TImes View Magazine,04/77)
"Ex-Cons Form Credit Union," (San Francisco Examiner, 09/73)
20/20 - "The Power of Mimi" (12/89 - Quicktime)
ABC World News Tonight w/Peter Jennings (12/90 - Quicktime)
Sunday Morning with Charles Kuralt (CBS) - (12/88 - Quicktime)