Interview with members of the Delancey Street Foundation
The idea was a simple one. It was based on simple concepts.
If people were willing to selflessly help and trust each others they could pull their lives from the gutter.
In hindsight, as with most great ideas, it’s a wonder it took so long for some one to put the pieces together.
Frustrated by a failing prison system, a police consultant and professor at UC Berkeley had an ambitious plan.
Mimi Silbert wanted to provide a place where the homeless and the drug-addicted, the violent criminals and the alcoholics could live together and work towards their common rehabilitation.
In 1971 she and her partner John Maher founded the Delancey Street Foundation, a completely self-reliant rehabilitation community that armed its residents with job skills and sense of belonging that had been a void in their lives.
“(Silbert) wanted to start a program that was run by the people in society who were the problem,” said Sandra Muñoz, a resident of Delancey Street. The foundation operates completely on the income generated by the restaurant, coffee shop, a moving company and other businesses earn and private donations, but not a dime of government funding. “We wouldn’t have to ask the government, the taxpayers, anybody (for money), because we’d been taking our entire lives. So far once were going to do our things and pay our own way.”
The model has been so successful it has spawned other Delancey Street communities in New York, Los Angeles, North Carolina and New Mexico.
Silbert, like her foundation, isn’t typical. She’s caring, but tough.
She welcomes ex-cons and works and lives side-by-side with them, but if they violate the rules of Delancey Street she is swift and hard-nosed in kicking them out.
Silbert has to be rigid when residents cross the boundaries of the program, for the good of those trying to stay straight.
“These people are looking at serious consequences if they don’t get involved with it,” said former Mayor Art Agnos. “If they’re not in Delancey then that usually means jail for a very long time. They have to get serious about it very quickly or Delancey Street will not put up with it. They run it so that you either get with the program or you go back to whatever alternative you have, which for most of these people is prison.”
The program requires a minimum two-year commitment, but residents can stay up to four and longer if they feel the need, Muñoz said.
By that time a Delancey Street product is equipped with at least three job skills, a GED, a few years of recovery and stability and the opportunity to return to the society that would’ve locked them away and become contributing members.
“(Silbert’s) showing us how to be the solution and not the problem,” said Gary Dockery, a former skinhead who has lived in Delancey for 18 months. “She’s bringing all of us in that everybody says, ‘Hey they’ll never be nobody.’ So this is a solution. She is a part of the solution.”
Profile Article of Delancey Street’s Director, Dr. Mimi Silbert
Gary Dockery looked around the courtroom soaking in his last few moments of freedom.
He was out of chances and standing before a judge seconds away from a life sentence that would write the final chapter to his short, but violent, sad and hate-filled life.
His luck, if he’d ever had any, seemed to have abandoned him and over the years so had anybody who cared for him.
“They weren’t wanting to give me anything, they just wanted to send me to prison,” Dockery said. “And for some weird reason … I’m getting ready to go get sentenced and all of the sudden the judge says, ‘I’m pulling this all back, and I’m going to give you your one and only chance.’”
Dockery’s reprieve came in the small, but proven hands of Mimi Silbert. For 36 years, Silbert, co-founder of the Delancey Street Foundation, has been the last chance for thousands of violent criminals, drug abusers, gang members, prostitutes, white supremacists and other members of society that society would prefer to lock away.
“She’s a brilliant, charismatic person who has devoted her life to the rehabilitation of these people who are seen by many as being beyond help,” said former San Francisco Mayor Art Agnos. “These people with drug and alcohol abuse problems and violent criminal histories, she takes them in a shows them this no-nonsense approach to getting their life together.”
Silbert had been teaching at UC Berkley and serving as a consultant to the police department before deciding there were better ways to help people. She co-founded the foundation in 1971 with her partner John Maher, a recovering heroin addict, with a $1,000 loan, an apartment for their headquarters and four drug users trying to fix their
lives the Delancey Street Foundation began to take shape. Today it has grown into it’s sprawling home on Embarcadero with dormitories that house 500 residents, an auto body shop, a coffee house, a restaurant and other businesses all managed and operated by the residents themselves.
Silbert lives and works alongside the residents of Delancey, which operate without government assistance.
Silbert’s philosophy has never wavered.
She wanted to create a place that addresses the element of society that was considered beyond rehabilitation. She sought out the felons and drug users who were willing to work everyday to make their future different from their past.
Dockery had been a member of the Aryan Nation. He stands now in a suit, but the grim reminders of his life before Delancey Street creep out from under his collar and sleeves.
The words “skin head” are emblazoned on his left hand and a tattoo of the words “war skin” surrounded by fire cannot be hidden behind his collar.
They are a stark reminder of the life he barely escaped.
“But, Mimi said, ‘I don’t see tattoos. I see a soul,” Dockery said.
Sandra Muñoz, a resident of Delancey, said the commitment Silbert makes to the residents is one of the keys to the foundation’s success.
“She is somebody who has everything to do with making the entire world a better place,” Muñoz said. “She truly believes that prison and more prison, especially in the state of California (where) there are 37, 38prisons, that it’s not the answer — that people who have had trouble in their lives can change. She works with us. She lives here with us.”
For many residents, Delancey Street may have been the first place in years, if not ever, they felt genuine care and concern.
“She also knows that most of us have been basically thrown away,” Dockery said. “Society don’t want us no more. We’ve done horrible things out there. But, she takes us in and shows us love and that there is a family that does care. By doing that it helps us push ourselves along.”
As two-year resident John Long begins to tell his story of abuse and hate that turned into anger and crime, he tilts his head just enough to catch sight of the Bay Bridge.
Just across that bridge in Oakland lies one of the violent worlds that Long left behind.
“I look at that bridge everyday,” he said, walking out of a second-floor conference room at the foundation. He doesn’t have to search hard for the symbolism.
“Immediately when I was born I was given away,” said Long, 48. “My auntie, she poured some hot water on me and scalded my body. Same auntie a couple years later, she had me jump on the bed with scissors and stab myself. So I had a lot of anger. A lot of anger.”
That anger would breed itself, as it often does, into violence.
”If I couldn’t get something from you, whether it be money or alcohol at the time, then you were no use to me,” Long said. “I was walking around the world very pissed off. Then my mother died … me and her didn’t get along because I still harbored some ill feelings for her (for abandoning me), but when she died, you know, some people miss what they don’t have. When they have it they don’t care for it. I was one of those people.”
He began abusing drugs along with alcohol. His drug of choice was the same one that had taken his mother’s life –crack cocaine. After a stint in Leavenworth prison in Kansas, Long called his sister and begged for a ticket to San Francisco and the Delancey Street Foundation he had read about.
After plenty of coaxing and promising, something Long said he did often while he was using, his sister finally bought his ticket.
“I said, ‘I’m not getting a round-trip ticket. I’m not going back.’”
Two years in Silbert’s program seems to have transformed him from the angry, violent criminal he was when he showed up at the front gate of Delancey to the soft-spoken, kindly man who now tells stories of his years before Delancey like they were from a past life.
Muñoz remembers the day when she asked her mentor and counselor what drove her to continue on? Why would she want to be here, living with these ex-cons and substance abusers when she could she could be doing anything else she wanted?
She looked back at Muñoz and said, “Why wouldn’t I want to do this? I get to be a part of watching people change and grow. What more is there?”
Summer of Love
Buster Fleming once lived in a second-story apartment that overlooked a revolution.
For $15 a month, he and his roommates witnessed the hippie counterculture movement from its epicenter – above Cal’s Surplus Store at the corner of Haight and Ashbury.
Fleming arrived in 1964, but never intended to stay more than a night.
He was 18 and on his way to Australia when he decided to stop in San Francisco along the way. He met a flower child, and they agreed to get together again later at the Psychedelic Shop on Haight. “She stood me up,” Fleming said with a hefty laugh.
“She was a hippie before hippie was a mainstream word. This was when psychedelic drugs, you know LSD, were being given out for free. This place was so different than anything I’d ever seen before.”
That one night in the City by the Bay has turned into 43 years for Fleming.
What changed the course of his life would have a similar effect on thousands of young people who floated like logs down a river to San Francisco in 1967 as part of the Summer of Love.
But the Summer of Love has become idealized in its retold history. It was a utopian idea, Fleming said, but not a reflection of the present state of affairs.
“That’s what we were striving for in ’67, but we didn’t have it yet,” he said. “I’ve always thought it was kind of misleading calling 1967 the Summer of Love. Love was the idea. It was what we were searching for– this kind of perfect
place. But we weren’t there yet. If you’re going to call it what it is, it was more like the Summer of Discontent.”
As young people came pouring in from all over the country in search of this place of peace and love, their ideas and their way of life were much different than what anyone had been exposed to at the time, Fleming said. This clash of ideas and the ensuing struggle to understand and adjust led to a restless and uneasy summer for the city.
“There was a big mixture of ideologies,” said Fleming, now 61. “We thought everything should be free. Free food, free housing, free phones, free everything. This kind of thinking and our way of life here really conflicted with the residents outside The Haight-Asbury. It created this big culture clash. Here we were and we were like nothing they had seen before and they’re asking, ‘What’s happening to our neighborhood and to our city?’”
Former board supervisor Angela Alioto was 14 during the summer of 1967. Her father, Joseph Alioto, was elected Mayor a few months later and with it came the task of guiding San Francisco through this unprecedented metamorphosis.
“In those days, he would work 20 hours a day, literally, and it was tough,” Alioto said. “I remember as a kid, there were always a lot of official meetings at our home on Saturdays and Sundays. We also had a (police) squad living with us because our home had been (attacked). So, in other words, I saw the serious side of it when I was at home.”
For all the issues the movement helped to push into society’s consciousness, from anti-war to civil rights and women’s rights to freedom of speech, it wasn’t heaven on earth either. At least not yet.
“The Summer of Love was not the Summer of Love that year. In the beginning, the residents resented them,” said Art Agnos, former Mayor who was a 28-year-old social worker at the time. “These kids were spilling out into the surrounding neighborhoods and sort of camping out on their front steps or in their yards and just settling down wherever they decided to do their thing, so there was a lot of friction between them and also with the police who were instructed to keep these folks in order. In ’67 people still didn’t fully understand what it was all about just yet.”
To Fleming, though, this neglected history of the summer of ’67 is inconsequential.
What it was and how it’s told today only matter to those who weren’t there to experience it for themselves, he said.
The city that was supposed to be a stop on the way — and the ideology of peace and love that wouldn’t let him leave — are all that matter.
He’s a lifer, one of the rare spirits that has been here ever since.
“I guess there’s only about 10 of us now. Ten survivors from that time period that have never left, still working in the community, still believing in the peace and freedom movement. We’re still hippies,” he said, taking a moment to brush the long, now-white, hair from his face. “We always will be.”