Recipes for Recovery
Silbert, who holds dual doctorates in criminology and psychology from UC-Berkeley, teamed with John Maher, a former addict from the South Bronx. In 1972, the year after President Nixon declared the “War on Drugs,” the two drew from their family backgrounds, naming their project after a New York street known as the starting point for new immigrants. Delancey Street began with a thousand-dollar loan and has since charted a new path in addiction treatment—challenging drug abusers and offenders to take maximum personal responsibility within the context of a community of support and mutual aid.
Delancey Street opened its first home in the former Russian Consulate building in San Francisco. Its main headquarters is now in a four-story complex on the waterfront in the city’s South Beach neighborhood, with housing and retail businesses, including a restaurant, outdoor café, and bookstore. By the mid-1990s, the organization had opened branches in Los Angeles, Calif.; San Juan Pueblo, N.M.; Greensboro, N.C.; and Brewster, N.Y. In 2007, Delancey began renovations on Norman Rockwell’s historic home in Stockbridge, Mass., and now runs a treatment program there. Each branch shares the same basic model but offers training to match the local economy. In rural New Mexico, residents can learn wastewater treatment and livestock management. In Stockbridge, they can learn stagecraft and study the performing arts.
Most importantly, Delancey’s residents learn, often for the first time, that they have value and can make and do things that are of value to others. And Delancey’s approach to treatment confirms that compassion and respect can be more fiscally sound than the dehumanization and punishment that happens in the prison system.
Delancey Street’s success has turned heads and won respect from experts and leaders all over the world. Former President Bill Clinton sent his drug czar to San Francisco to consult with Silbert. Its board of governors includes influentials such as former Secretary of State George Shultz and Senator Diane Feinstein. Delancey has trained people in 450 cities in 48 states and 25 countries and is helping groups in South Africa and Singapore launch similar treatment programs. It has worked with the California Department of Corrections on policy changes to help keep parolees out of prison and in community service programs and helped San Francisco write a master plan to reduce crime among youth. It has also started a program inside San Mateo County’s jail based on the Delancey Street “each one teach one” philosophy. And a number of Delancey Street graduates have started their own treatment programs based on the model they lived and worked in for years.
In Service to Each Other
You don’t have to have a past like Lewis’ to get into Delancey. You can just show up for lunch. Delancey owns and operates a renowned waterfront restaurant at its South Beach location.
The expansive American-themed menu changes daily and features items chosen by Delancey’s staff—such as spit-roasted chicken, chorizo omelettes, and Latin scallop ceviche.
An impeccably groomed maître d’ greets my girlfriend and me, his tattoo peeking up over his collar. Looking around the room, I notice members of the city’s political elite seated near a mother with three small children, and next to her, a group of electrical workers on lunch break.
All receive the same respect from the waiters—who seem just a little nervous, like actors on opening night of a play. The food rivals anything offered farther up the Embarcadero at the foodie bistros and take-out carts. Our waiter returns several times to confirm that my ahi tuna sandwich is cooked perfectly.
Voices of Compassion
Personal stories of life beyond bars.
No one at Delancey Street, whether a dishwasher or the executive director, receives a wage. Instead, they receive housing, treatment, and food. All money generated from Delancey Street’s enterprises is returned to keep the program running without government funding. At first this took resident Sean Cronk by surprise. “I asked ‘Who is going to control us?’ In prison, I was used to having guards make all of my life decisions for me!” Instead, he answers to peers, ex-offenders like himself.
Delancey has graduated more than 18,000 people—bringing them, as they see it, out of “America’s underclass into society as ... citizens living decent, legitimate, and productive lives.” More than 10,000 of them arrived illiterate and have gone on to receive high-school equivalency degrees. Delancey’s alumni go on to a wide range of careers—such as firefighter, carpenter, and graphic designer. The organization relies on its graduates to come back, counsel, volunteer, and train the new arrivals. “At Delancey, we’re responsible for each other. We’re based on the idea of family and community. We’re not really a business, institution, or even a program,” said resident Brett Crawford.
After graduating from Delancey, Margie Lewis founded a nonprofit called Into the Solution, based in Oakland, Calif. The group helps formerly incarcerated people find affordable housing. “It’s what you learn at Delancey. You have to give back what you have been given. It’s a lifelong commitment for me to help people who are in the same situation I was in not so long ago.”
James Tracy wrote this article for Beyond Prisons, the Summer 2011 issue of YES! Magazine. James is the co-author of the forthcoming book Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels, and Black Power: Community Organizing in Radical Times. He is a longtime economic justice organizer in the San Francisco Bay Area and works for Community Housing Partnership.
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