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CA's Model Rehab Center- Delancey Street Foundation May 05, 2007 7:31 AM

California's model rehab centre
By David Willis
BBC News, California

It has been called the most successful rehabilitation programme in the world.

The Delancey Street Foundation
It takes four years to graduate from the Delancey Street foundation
The Delancey Street Foundation in San Francisco puts hardened criminals - including thieves and murderers - in charge of their own recovery and it doesn't take a penny in grant money from the United States government.

Instead the residents support themselves - and each other - by running a string of businesses including a gourmet restaurant. It is a 500-strong family, and - much like a normal family - the punishment for those who step out of line is washing the dishes.

UK Prime Minister Tony Blair visited the place recently, prompting calls for the concept to be introduced in Britain.


Nestling in the shadow of San Francisco's Bay Bridge the Delancey Street Foundation looks more like an upscale Mediterranean resort than a commune for ex-cons. Inside the place is immaculate.

James greeted me warmly, dressed in a suit and tie - the only evidence of his notorious past a necklace of tattoos peeking above a crisply-starched shirt.

14,000 offenders helped
Started with a $1000 loan
Residents pay no fees
He never really stood a chance. His mother was a prostitute, his father a member of the Hells Angels. By the age of 44 he had spent nearly half his life in prison. He has a rap sheet which reads like an encyclopaedia of crime: drug possession, assault, attempted murder.

But now James is going straight.

The first stop on our tour: a gourmet waterfront restaurant run by the residents and open to the public for lunch and dinner.

The place serves around 500 people a day, most of whom have no idea the man or woman serving them is a former car thief or a cat burglar.

James took me to meet Winfrid, the rotisserie chef, who told me he had robbed banks because he was lonely.

Winfrid was caught by the FBI attempting to transfer his ill-gotten gains into an offshore bank account and served 11 years, four months and two days in a federal prison, not that he was counting.

A year into his stay at Delancey Street he says he will never do another hold-up again.

He will remain there another three years (it takes a total of four years to graduate) and acquire the skills he needs to rebuild his life.

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 May 05, 2007 7:33 AM

Living together

As we moved on to tour the coffee shop, car service and bookstore James told me residents live and work together, pool their income and take responsibility for each other's welfare.

Mimi Silbert, the founder of Delancey Street
Mimi Silbert founded Delancey Street in 1971
Funding for Delancey Street comes from profits generated by the businesses and donations. There is no cost to the residents, the community or the government.

It is a concept he believes could work well elsewhere.

In the canteen and the common room gang members rubbed shoulders with hit men, Mafiosi chewed the cud with con men, and white-collar criminals shot the breeze with white supremacists.

There was no hint of tension; the residents all seemed far too busy for that, either acquiring an education or learning new job skills.

Then it was back to the restaurant for high tea with Mimi Silbert, the founder of Delancey Street, and the only person in the place who is not a former criminal.

Which is not to say she has not been to jail - plenty of times in fact, in the course of her work as a criminal psychologist.

Glowing with pride

She founded Delancey Street in 1971 with four residents and $1000 (£507) loan and has since turned a decrepit warehouse into a lavish residential and retail centre, a place which has seen more than 14,000 multiple offenders transformed into law-abiding citizens.

Mimi says Delancey Street does not accept former sex offenders or psychiatric patients, simply because they require special care. With such care she believed the concept could work for them too.

I told her what James had told me - that Delancey Street is the family he never had - and she glowed with pride.

James, she said, was now one of her recruiters. He goes into jails to spread the word about Delancey Street.

Plenty has changed for James in recent years. He told me the last time he arrived at the county jail he was mistaken for a lawyer.

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 May 05, 2007 7:43 AM

Mimi Silbert

Photo: Actual Films

Mimi Silbert

Project: Delancey Street Foundation

Location: San Francisco, Calif. U.S.A.

In 1971 Mimi Silbert founded Delancey Street with four residents, a thousand dollar loan and a dream. She envisioned a place where substance abusers, former felons and others who had hit bottom would, through their own efforts, be able to turn their lives around.

Silbert has since built an empire grossing 20 million dollars a year with locations in New York, New Mexico, North Carolina and Los Angeles. She has never accepted a single penny of government funds.

Since those early days in a single house, Mimi Silbert has empowered more than 14,000 people to lead crime-free, drug-free lives in mainstream society. They have acquired skills, they attend college and they are part of the workforce.

Silbert says she has spent her career cultivating a "university of the streets." She calls it a "Harvard for losers," where the students are former pimps, prostitutes, junkies, drug dealers and armed robbers.

Her program's name comes from Silbert's own past. Delancey Street is a place on Manhattan's lower east side where immigrants like her parents came to make a new life for themselves.

What Does the Delancey Street Foundation Do?

The Delancey Street Foundation is a residential education center where drug addicts, criminals and the homeless learn to lead productive, crime-free lives. It has been called the most successful rehabilitation project in the United States.

The foundation runs at no cost to the taxpayer or client. They earn revenue by operating more than 20 businesses, including the Delancey Street Restaurant and Café and the Delancey Street Moving Company. These "training schools" not only generate income, they teach residents marketable skills and inculcate in them habits of self-control and self-discipline.

Each resident spends up to four years at the facility and must pass equivalency exams to obtain a high school diploma in order to graduate. They also need to line up a job and a place to live. Silbert likes to see each of her students graduate with three marketable skills to ensure their job success.

Silbert reports that 65 percent of the organization's operating costs are paid for by revenue from its businesses. She originally rejected foundation money, fearing it would deter from the participants' feeling that their survival depended on the success of the businesses. Today, the organization receives more than ten million dollars from private donations every year.

Silbert and Delancey Street are always facing new challenges. Today, offenders are often third-generation criminals. Silbert used to tell clients that their parents wanted a better life for them. Since participants' parents are often criminals as well, the draw to go back to the streets can be strong. Fortunately, after more than 30 years, Mimi Silbert isn't about to give up.

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 May 05, 2007 7:57 AM

Unlike other rehab centers, Delancey is entirely self-governed. Its residents live and work together following the principle of "each one teach one" to learn job and life skills. It does not utilize the "12 steps" of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Silbert, the organization's only professional staffer, is unpaid. She lives in a one-bedroom apartment at Delancey Street and wears donated clothes. Her two sons are grown.

Besides its San Francisco headquarters, Delancey has facilities in New Mexico, North Carolina, New York and Los Angeles. Silbert spends time at each of them; "I run around, I do my circles going to all the different places," she said. She also assists other states that are trying to replicate her model.

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 May 05, 2007 8:12 AM

The Delancey Street Foundationin San Francisco also grew from humble beginnings to success and numerous replications.  Delancey Street  helps ex-felons and ex-addicts enter the labor market. 

By providing a structured educational and living environment, Delancey Street helps individuals learn the skills they need to rebuild their lives. The residents live and work together, pooling income earned through a variety of business enterprises.  Delancey Street creates these “social purpose enterprises” (also called “training businesses”) to provide the experience, skills and discipline required to succeed in the workplace.  At the same time, the enterprises earn modest revenues. 

Delancey's impact is compelling:

  • Over 10,000 formerly illiterate people have received high school equivalency degrees; Over 1000 have graduated with a diploma from a three-year program taught by Delancey's own residents;
  • Delancey has moved over 10,000 violent, racial gang members away from gangs into active non-violence.
  • The residents have built or remodeled over 1500 units of very low income housing and trained over 800 people in the building trades.
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