What do you do if you’re just out of jail and you’ve got nowhere to go? What can you do if you want to leave a street life of drug addiciton behind you? Thousands of people facing these situations have gone to live and work at Delancey Street.
These men and women, who range in age from 12 to 68, build their own buildings, run their own businesses, nurture their own friendships, and cook their own meals. There is no paid staff; running and operating the organization plays an important part in each resident’s process of change and allows them to earn the money it takes to operate Delancey Street’s five facilities in New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Los Angeles, and the headquarters in San Francisco.
Most residents enter Delancey Street functionally illiterate with no saleable work experience, and leave two to four years later with a high school equivalency and three marketable skills.
Training extends beyond the academic and vocational. Delancey Street builds the interpersonal social survival skills and attitudes, values, sense of responsibility and self-reliance necessary to live successfully without resorting to drugs or crime.
The organization’s motto, "each one teaches one," relies on the individual’s ability to both give and receive. Each resident acts as both mentor and mentored in the development of life skills. In this way Delancey Street operates as an "extended family" rather than as a "program."
The thousands of men and women who have graduated from Delancey Street now work as lawyers, truck drivers, salespeople, health professionals, mechanics, contractors, and even the president of the San Francisco Housing Commission and a deputy sheriff.
Stephanie Muller has been a Delancey Street resident for eight years.
Kathryn: Could you describe to me where you were before you came to Delancey Street?
Stephanie: I grew up in Berkeley, and when I was around 13, I started using drugs. Until I was 27, when I came to Delancey Street, I usually – or always, to tell you the truth – lived with drug dealers and used hard drugs.
I never felt like I could do anything else. I would stop for awhile, but always end up doing it again.
Kathryn: How did you hear about Delancey Street?
Stephanie: I had just taken some scuzball-dope-fiend to bed in some rotten hotel and when he fell asleep I stole all his money and all his dope. It was 5 o’clock in the morning and I was walking down the street – a burned out junkie. I looked around and I had nowhere to go. I had cut every possible tie; my drug addict friends didn’t even want me around.
My only options were to just sit under a bush somewhere or try to figure out someplace to go. A friend of mine knew a woman who ran a program in Oakland, so I went there, and it turns out she was a graduate of Delancey Street.
She looked at me and this nice little upper-class program she had and said, "Oh, it costs money to get into this, but I know a place that you need to go." So I got a ride over to Delancey Street.
Kathryn: How did you feel when you first moved there?
Stephanie: For the first time in my life I actually felt like I could be safe – like I didn’t have to sleep with my clothes on so I’d be ready to leap up in the middle of the night because someone was trying to do something to me, or jump out a window because there was some guy trying to beat my ass. I could actually sleep without being completely petrified.
Kathryn: When you were first at Delancey Street, did you go through any drug withdrawal?
Stephanie: Yeah, I felt rotten, but I kept thinking, what other choice do I have? I wanted out, really, I was desperate to get out of what I was doing. Once you’ve been using for 14 years there are two choices: to go to prison or to die. And I was not looking forward to doing either of them.
At Delancey Street I could look around and see people who were really doing something with their lives. I could see graduates who were successful and they had families, and they were happy.
I saw people who actually liked each other – they weren’t trying to get something out of you. And I wanted good friends so badly, someone I could laugh with and talk with – you miss out on all of that on the street, you’re so nervous about everybody.
Kathryn: What did you do after you first moved to Delancey Street?
Stephanie: They kept me really busy so I didn’t have time to think "poor me, poor me." I spent my time working and learning some decent habits, like how to get up in the morning on time (laughing). And I had the opportunity to try things that I never ever thought I’d be able to do.
Kathryn: What were some of those things?
Stephanie: Well, we sell Christmas trees during the holidays, and we had one tree lot in the parking lot of our building. I got to go out there and play with all these people who were coming all happy to buy Christmas trees. I’d help them pick out a tree and get it on their car. It was so much fun to just talk to normal, regular people without thinking "Oh, God, they’re going to know what I am."
I was doing something for the place where I was living so I felt very important. I started at the very bottom doing things like that – and eventually I ran our national tree drive.
Kathryn: What was it about being at Delancey Street that helped you make changes?
Stephanie: I think that actually being put into the position to be accountable for things, instead of somebody always doing something for me. I got an assignment, and I had to complete it, and I was responsible for it, and it made me feel like I was actually worth something. There wasn’t someone else doing the important thing and I was there licking the envelope.
I felt that people trusted me, no matter who I was before. They gave me a chance and taught me that I could do something. I would have done anything, I think, to be good at something.
Kathryn: How have you changed since you moved to Delancey Street?
Stephanie: I’ve become someone who really feels I’m worth something, somebody who really cares about what happens to me, and I have the ability to care about somebody besides me!
I understand what loyalty means. I have a family that I would do anything for, and I have a tremendous sense of hope. I’ve changed from somebody who thought that I could never do anything, to somebody who feels she could do absolutely anything!
I might make a mistake, but nothing can stop me. There isn’t anything that I couldn’t do!
Kathryn: What makes Delancey Street work?
Stephanie: The fact that those of us who come to Delancey Street are the people who make Delancey Street work; there’s no paid professional staff, no experts who come in and do all the "real jobs."
I think primarily the philosophy that "each one teaches one" really works. When you’re brand new there’s always somebody’s who’s been here a little longer than you, and then a little bit longer than them, so you have some kind of leader that’s helping drag you through each of these things.
Kathryn: When new people come in and they’re angry and violent, how do people work with them?
Stephanie: Well, first of all, there’s three main rules at Delancey Street. No drugs or alcohol of any kind. No physical violence, and there’s no threat of physical violence. So when you come in, you know that if any one of those three things happens, you’ll be asked to leave.
Kathryn: When you were first learning things, like how to get up in the morning, who helped teach you?
Stephanie: There’s a dorm head who’s over your dorm, and there’s a lot of peer pressure, because if your dormmate lets you stay in bed, he’s going to be in as much trouble as you! You really are forced to be accountable for the next guy.
Let’s say you and I are working together, and you run down because you don’t want to be late and leave me sleeping. They’d say, "Kathryn, where’s Stephanie?"
And you’d say, "Oh, well, she’s in bed!"
And they’d say, "Why would you just leave her in bed?! Are you looking out for yourself? Go up and get her and I want both of you. You’re going to work an extra hour tonight. You just can’t ignore her and leave her in bed like that!"
At first you don’t really care about me, but you don’t want to get in trouble, so you start doing that because you’re asked to do it. Then one time I’m going to be in bed and you’re going to look at me and say, "Is something wrong?"
Believe me, at first, it’s not all this caring concern – it’s just because you’re accountable for me. But one day you’re going to actually care what happens to me.
Kathryn: I’m curious about the mentoring process; could you describe one experience as a mentor?
Stephanie: There was a girl I worked with in our sales department. I would work with her on the phone, teaching her how to do stuff, just business-wise.
She was just off the street as a prostitute and had never done anything. I’d talk to her about everything, about relationships, families, what she was going through, and bit by bit we got closer.
She grew up at Delancey Street. I just heard she got this incredible job as a manager at a huge telemarketing company, and I’m so proud of her! I thought, "Wow, she’s my daughter. I did that!" To watch people grow is almost like watching yourself, you know. Nobody comes in special.
Kathryn: Do you feel cut off from the rest of the city?
Stephanie: Absolutely not!
The beauty of Delancey Street is that we’re an integral part of the community. All of our training schools are woven in with what’s going on in San Francisco. We have a great restaurant that’s open to the public, and we cater banquets for hundreds of guests. We have a moving company, print shop, an auto service center and a screening company. We’re dealing with the public on a day-to-day basis.
The people in this community here are just incredible. They’re very open to hiring our people once they graduate, to being good friends of ours, to being very proud to have us in their community.
No matter who you are, Delancey Street gives people a sense of hope that, "God, something’s working somewhere!"
Kathryn: What is your primary job?
Stephanie: My primary job is assistant to Mimi Silbert, the president. The division that I oversee is called Marketing and Economic Development. I market our businesses like the Delancey Street Restaurant.
I’m also in charge of the "Institute for Social Renewal." We have so many requests for how to start programs like Delancey Street that we decided to start classes for people who want to learn the psychological underpinnings and operations of how Delancey Street works. We’ve had people from Australia, New Zealand, France, Russia, Spain, England, Canada, and from every state.
Kathryn: When you look ahead, what is your next step?
Stephanie: Actually, I’m in the middle of what I really want to do.
My next step would only be to make sure other people can do the same thing. I want to make sure that the Institute takes off, and that the people I’m working with at Delancey Street do well.