Walking down San Francisco’s Embarcadero, you might notice what looks to be an upscale apartment complex right down the street from AT&T Park. And with its pristine gardens, quaint café, and picturesque view of the bay, it’s easy to think this. But this building isn’t home to members of the city’s upper class. Instead it is home to the Delancey Street Foundation, an organization that houses nearly 400 men and women, namely ex-convicts, who are in need of a stable and community-oriented environment.
Delancey Street was started in 1971 by John Maher and Mimi Silbert. Together, Maher and Silbert established an organization that was based on what they call an “extended family model”, which began by providing four ex-convicts with accommodation in a San Francisco apartment. Twenty years later with the help of a bank loan and support from city council, Delancey Street was turned into a 40,000 square foot complex that provides assistance and housing to 300 people who had formerly been deemed unable to help.
While this model may seem risky, its devotion to making its members feel like they are improving their lifestyles and becoming accomplished is what makes this rehabilitation format so successful. The average resident, who likely has been imprisoned or a hard-core drug abuser, is typically uneducated or illiterate, and has a history of violence and poverty. In order to overcome these hardships, residents must complete a minimum stay of two years, but members are welcome to stay for as long as they need, which most take advantage of. The only requirements are that residents remain drug free, alcohol free, and violence free.
Once welcomed into the Delancey Street family, residents begin their work doing basic level jobs such as working in the kitchen washing dishes. When they have proven that they are committed to recovery they are moved up to jobs with more responsibility. These jobs include working in the café and restaurant, doing garden work and maintenance, or even working for some of Delancey Street’s more established companies, such as their moving business. Besides providing valuable skills, most of these jobs allow residents to come in contact with people outside of the organization, showing that they are capable of change and social competence despite having been incarcerated.
In addition to working, residents are able to get their GED and receive training in a number of marketable jobs. They can also put their talents to good use by spending their free time creating art that is sold in an on-site studio, or repairing cars in the facility’s mechanic shop. Regarding this, senior Emily Wetzel remarked that her favorite part of Delancey Street was “being able to see all of the shops that residents work in.” She adds that “It was nice to see so many people who were once incarcerated working together in a collaborative environment.”
This concept of having residents serve as workers and leaders provides them with a feeling of dignity and responsibility. Many residents have noted that they have attempted recovery before coming to Delancey Street, but were unsuccessful because they were not offered the stability and community needed. The triumph that the vast majority of residents experience is what causes the immense success of the program and the pleasant atmosphere that goes along with it. The friendly and welcoming dispositions of nearly all of the residents we encountered was one of the best and most surprising parts of the visit. Junior Aliyah Sanghvi noted that she was “surprised by how welcoming and polite everybody was. Considering they were trying to turn their lives around, they didn’t seem grumpy or overwhelmed at all.”
The impacts of this environment are clear as the effectiveness of Delancey Street points to a better future for ex-convicts. Its influence can be seen as a number of similar organizations continue to open, including four additional Delancey Street homes across the country and a variety of others who are borrowing Delancey Street’s effective principle. The incredible life transformations that residents undergo prove that criminals can change their ways with a little extra help from the community. But it is not just large organizations like Delancey Street that can be influential. As junior Jocelyn Woods describes, we can have our own impact through MAP. She explains that “Our visit to Delancey Street gives a strong sense of hope for criminal justice at large and will give a valid and moving story to share with legislators that aren’t aware of such efficient rehabilitation.”
So, the next time you’re walking through San Francisco consider that the city is more than just the hustle and bustle of Union Square or the view of the Golden Gate. There are a thousand ways to make an impact on the criminal justice system, and it can be as simple as acknowledging the possibility of reformation through Delancey Street’s successful foundation.
Article written by MAP member Kendall Perata
Article posted by MAP Officer Nikita Dandia