Criminal sentencing policies swing one way and then the other, but demand for entry into the Delancey Street residential training center for drug abusers, ex-convicts, and the unhoused remains the same, according to Dr. Mimi Silbert, the program’s president and chief executive office.
Started in 1971 by Silbert and John Maher, the San Francisco center is named after a street on New York’s Lower East Side where Eastern Europeans settled at the turn of the 20th century. The facility, located at 600 The Embarcadero, consists of a 400,000-square-foot, four-story complex with 177 dorm rooms, pool, movie theater, and restaurant.
Delancey Street receives about 30 letters a day from imprisoned people who have been paroled but feel they’re not ready to be released without additional support and would like to join Delancey Street. During their two-year commitment residents learn vocational skills through the nonprofit’s various businesses: a restaurant, moving company, catering services, and Christmas tree lot during the winter. They also learn social skills as they’re required to engage with other residents.
Typically, the San Francisco Delancey Street residence houses 350 people, but due to the pandemic that number has shrunk to 150. Those who might otherwise have enrolled at Delancey Street have likely remained in prison, entered another program, or were released without support.
“The number of people writing to us has not changed, but for the last two years, the jails and prisons are closed because of Covid-19 so we can’t go in and interview people,” Silbert said.
Once Delancey Street is able to interview imprisoned people the program will swell back to 350 people.
The process for entering Delancey Street starts with a letter from the applicant, followed by an in-person interview conducted by a former prisoner and/or addict. That’s true even for prospects who are referred to the program by a judge as an alternative to incarceration or as part of probation or parole. The process is always the same, even for someone with powerful connections.
“When Jimmy Carter was president, he called me and said, ‘I have a nephew in prison; I would like you to interview him,’” Silbert said. “I told him, ‘Mr. President, I think that’s wonderful, but if your nephew wants to come to Delancey Street, he has to write us first.’ I don’t even care if they are lying in their letter. That little first choice has to be with them.”
The inability to undertake in-person entry interviews due Covid-19 has shrunk the facility’s population, but there have been bright spots during the pandemic. The program was partially replicated at California State Prison Solano, with a 100-person unit run entirely by prisoners. While unable to cook in restaurants or move furniture, inmates conducted social activities modeled after Delancey Street, meeting together regularly to share what’s on their minds and learning new vocabulary words.
“We took the worst people at Solano into our unit and they ran it themselves,” Silbert said. “They got up every morning, had a meeting, presented a vocabulary word of the day, and ran the whole program without us. I thought that was phenomenal.”
By the “worst” people, Silbert means those who didn’t graduate high school and/or are functionally illiterate, have no vocational skills, and are unable to get along with people. She includes those who have “criminal values” such as lying, cheating, and stealing, and may be third- or fourth-generation gang members.
“We believe in people who society honestly wants to throw away,” she said. “We believe in them before they believe in themselves. The other interesting thing is we don’t have any paid staff; Delancey Street is run by the residents. The people who are the problems are also the solutions and that’s what I love about it.”
Delancey Street isn’t for everyone. Four out of 10 new residents quit before making it to their two-year commitment. And while Delancey Street has many famous fans, Governor Gavin Newsom and Speaker Nancy Pelosi among them, it also has critics. Some worry about the program’s lack of oversight, made possible by the fact Delancey Street doesn’t receive government funding. Others believe Delancey Street is exploitative; residents don’t earn any money for their work and instead receive free room and board.
“There are many, many places that do things to change peoples’ lives,” Silbert said. “But we know 32,000 lives have been changed by Delancey Street. People send me cards on Mother’s Day and throughout the year telling me they wouldn’t have a life if not for Delancey Street. They have kids and grandkids. I’m sure millions of other people have millions of other ways they change lives and that’s fabulous. They have other ways of approaching things and I think that’s great. We do our best and I hope they do their best.”
Delancey Street maintains satellite operations in Los Angeles, New Mexico, North Carolina, South Carolina, New York, and Massachusetts. There are also programs in Alaska, Singapore, and South Africa inspired by Delancey Street.