John Maher


Delancey Street’s philosophy is self-rescue, self-help, self-reliance. Its newcomers, called “immigrants,” are not allowed visits, phone calls or passes for six months. They have no rights until they’ve shown they can handle responsibilities – by remaining drug-free, for example. Later they move to job training while participating in compulsory “games,” attack-style group therapy sessions intended to teach nonviolent means of coping with frustrations. – Couples: John Maher and Mimi Silbert: Among the Ex-Cons at their Rehab Center [PDF]

The Delancey Street Foundation, often simply referred to as Delancey Street, is a nonprofit organization based in San Francisco that provides residential rehabilitation services and vocational training for substance abusers and convicted criminals. It reintegrates its residents into mainstream society by operating various businesses – such as restaurants, catering and moving companies – all of which are wholly managed and run by the residents themselves. The foundation’s methods have been widely praised and have been emulated internationally.

John Maher

John Maher of Delancey Street: A Guide for Peaceful Revolution in America, by Grover Sales

John Maher was the principal founder of Delancey Street in 1971 with three friends from Synanon and the help of attorney Mike Berger. Maher (1940-1988) was a self-proclaimed “bum” and drug addict and former member of Synanon who was the subject of two books (“John Maher of Delancey Street,” by Grover Sales and “Sane Asylum; Inside the Delancey Street Foundation,” by Charles Hampden-Turner), a television movie, “Delancey Street; Crisis Within,” and a segment of “60 Minutes,” “Love Thy Neighbor,” in 1974. Mimi Silbert (Co-founder), a Boston-bred criminologist from UC Berkeley, began grant writing for the foundation in 1972. Maher once said, “I could either be a bum or a great social leader. I failed as a bum, so I had no options.”

Since Maher couldn’t get a loan from a bank, he borrowed a thousand dollars from a loan shark for start up funds. They lived in a small apartment on Bush Street and then raised enough money to rent the Egyptian consulate building in San Francisco’s posh Pacific Heights neighborhood. Maher offered the Egyptians fifteen hundred dollars a month. Maher said, “They told me they wouldn’t accept a penny less than a thousand a month.” Once the neighbors discovered there was a re-educational environment in the neighborhood, several formed a committee to have Delancey Street thrown out. Maher responded by buying the former Russian consulate building two blocks away at Pacific and Divisadero, and then an apartment building half a block from “Egypt,” the name the foundation gave the consulate building. They named the Russian consulate, “Russia,” and the other building was the “Estonia” building. When they purchased the El Portal hotel at 8th Avenue & Fulton Street, they named that building, “Egypt.” But it eventually was simply known as “The Club,” because it was the main gathering place for the residents.

In December 1972, Maher met Mimi Silbert, a criminologist. Mimi and John fell in love, and Ms. Silbert began helping Maher structure the foundation. In the mid 80’s, Maher left Delancey Street and Ms. Silbert took over the running of the foundation. Over the years, she has received numerous awards for her incredible work at Delancey Street. The minimum stay at Delancey Street is 2 years while the average resident remains for almost 4 years – drug, alcohol and crime-free. During their time at Delancey Street, residents receive a high school equivalency degree (GED) and are trained in 3 different marketable skills. Beyond academic and vocational training, residents learn important values, and the social and interpersonal skills that allow them to live successfully in the mainstream of society.

Any act of violence, or threat of violence, is cause for immediate removal from Delancey Street. Interestingly, former gang members, who have sworn to kill each other, live and work together peacefully starting in dorm-rooms and moving up into their own apartments. Residents learn to work together promoting non-violence through a principle called “each-one-teach-one” where each new resident is responsible for helping guide the next arrival.

Maher became friends with one of San Francisco’s renown artists, Dugald Stermer (Art director for a muck raking periodical, Ramparts Magazine. Rolling Stone magazine borrowed Dugald’s design for the first issues of their publication) Dugald became a print media advisor and eventually a councilor and even moved his studio inside Delancey Street’s multi million dollar triangle complex on the Embarcadero. Dugald was involved up unto his death in 2012. Another bay area notable, KSAN FM radio jock, Stefan Ponek, joined Delancey’s board of directors.

In 1974, Delancey Street was instrumental in gaining the release from prison of Bob Wells. Wells went into the prison system at 19 years of age and in 1974 had been in prison 46 years, longer than anyone in California. Seven of those years were on Death Row in San Quentin. The campaign slogan was, “46 Years is Enough.” Wells became a resident and died a year later of natural causes, and as a free man.

In the 1970’s Maher and the foundation became fast friends with Cesar E. Chavez and his organization, “The United Farm Workers of America.” 1975 Delancey residents worked as part of Cesar Chavez’s personal security team, marching in the “Thousand Mile March”, culminating at the Farm Worker’s convention. John and Cesar were the same guys in separate bodies. John’s few minutes long speech brought the convention to its feet in thunderous applause. Maher was excellent at delivering a speech.

Bill Maher, John’s younger brother, who was a resident, got a law degree, ran for and won the presidency of San Francisco’s school board, and then was elected the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

Delancey Street owned and operated several businesses. A construction company, an automotive repair service, an advertising marketing sales department, a restaurant on Union Street (Now at Brannan and the Embarcadero), a moving company and an indoor decorative plants company. These companies helped to not only serve as training schools, but as money making businesses to help support the program, since Delancey Street did not accept or rely on government stipends. During the 1970s, Delancey Street was awarded a liquor license for its Union Street restaurant and also a Federally insured Credit Union. With the help of donations, Delancey has been self-sustaining for over forty years.

Within a year of its founding, the Delancey Street community had grown to 100 members. By 2002, there were 500 residents in San Francisco, living in a self-contained group of 177 apartments known as, “The Triangle.” The complex was built between 1989 and 1990 by Delancey Street residents.

The later half of the 1970s, Delancey Street acquired an old “dude ranch” in New Mexico and over the past forty years has opened facilities in New York, Southern California (the defunct Midtown Hilton hotel on Vermont Street in Los Angeles in 1993), as well as North and South Carolina, and Stockbridge, MA.

As of January 2015, Mimi Silbert and six residents from the early seventies Abe Irizarry, Jack Behan, Tommy Grapshi, Stephanie Muller, Jerry Raymond and Teri Lynch Delane have remained to help run the Foundation.


Delancey Street Programs

As of the early 1990s, the average Delancey Street resident has had 12 years of drug addiction, has been in prison four times, is functionally illiterate, unskilled and has never worked for more than six months. “People who have become involved with gangs, drugs, violence, crime . . . those are our favorite residents,” Silbert said in 1993. In 2000, the BBC reported that “All of the staff are ex-offenders who, on average, have each been in prison four times and used drugs for more than ten years.”

In spring 2000, through San Francisco State University, a cohort of Delancey Street students embarked on an innovative program, with several earning a BA in Urban Studies in 2004. Classes were taught on-site by university professors and community leaders. There is a complete ban on alcohol, drugs and threatening behaviour by residents.

As of 2003, about half of the $15 million annual operating costs of the organization came from a variety of businesses it owned and operated. As of that year, more than 10,000 ex-cons and the homeless had been provided with housing, food, and a job at one of the many businesses the foundation operated.


Delancey Street Communication Group Therapy Games

Delancey Street Group Therapy, based upon Synanon Group Therapy lessons, were referred to as ‘Games’:

In Delancey Street Games, they encourage you to deal with your mistakes, telling me that if I could toughen this one out, handle this humiliation, I would come up stronger, better able to make right decisions, and if the decision is wrong, you learn that, too. You run from the problem, you don’t learn from it.

First time I heard John, I thought, “Jesus, they got me in here with a bunch of commies!” The second time he spoke I thought I was hearing Martin Luther King. And his seminars would start to build the unity. He told us where the Foundation was going; we’d ask him questions. He got rid of a lot of my prejudices about blacks, and my ignorance, the labels they put on people.

John has a way of carrying everyone in the room. He will say something in three hours to hit all three hundred people, give them something to work on. He speaks to an audience. He can talk about the prejudiced honkies, the prejudiced blacks, the guilt people carry around. He caroms everyone, hits them with something, and when he walks out, he leaves them thinking about themselves and their actions, what they really want to do with their lives, and if their lives are kind of fucked up, how they can change it.

The reason John gets to much respect is that everyone knows he is not asking you to do anything he doesn’t do himself. I got so much trust in the man, that he can ask me to do anything, I wouldn’t even question it, and I never felt that way about anyone. John can relate to you, put you through changes, because he’s been there himself, it’s not something he’s read in a book.
– Ron Coombs, Vietnam Veteran; John Maher of Delancey Street, by Grover Sales.


Therapy at Delancey Street consists of work, highly structured group socializing, and nightly participation in a cathartic form of encounter group therapy first developed at Synanon. Synenon “games” seem to be a kind of psychic toilet where hostilities are expressed, exaggerated, flushed out and often forgotten. The therapeutic process as a whole seems to be the old one of getting people to admit their lives have been wasted and a sham, and then giving them the group support to start over the new (and right) wary.

“Squares” (nonaddicts and noncriminals) come by the score to Delancey Street meetings and games to submit themselves to the artful verbal hostility of experienced “game” players. They come especially to listen to Maher’s dramatic, exaggerated tirades against absolutely everyone: junkies; weak‐kneed bleeding hearts; vicarious thrill radical chic creepos; right‐wing nuts; and “Mickey Mousism.” To the growth‐movement liberal types, for instance, Maher says: “Please remember that we invite you squares here partly to be role models for our own people. I know that some of you are creeative and that creative people disintegrate to find meaning, but our people here just disintegrate. So if you come in like brooding Hamlets or dressed as an artistic montage of recycled garbage, then some of our people could get the wrong message.”

When a reporter asked 35‐year‐old Maher about his “pioneering” new way of rehabilitation, he was told, with glee: “Yeah, you could say we have a ‘new’ way of fighting crime and drugs. It’s a way that hasn’t been tried lately. We tell ‘em to stop.”

Nicholas Von Hoffman called Delancey a combination of The Mafia, The Communist Party and The Little Sisters of the Poor, and it’s about that confusing, sociologically. Of these two books on Delancey Street only one, however, tries to make any sense of how the system works, and it’s by far the more ambitious and better book of the two. In “Sane Asylum” Charles Hampden Turner sees Delancey Street as an example of Synergy — the process of using opposing forces to’ strengthen each other. Hampden‐Turner is a British “psycho‐sociologist” and relies heavily on the theories of Gregory Bateson. Thus, he sees Delancey as a return to radical synthesis: toughness and tenderness; left and right; creativity and obedience; self‐control and letting go; etc. The full‐blown theory seems to suggest that if all aspects of a human system can grow together in point‐counter‐point, then something vague but wonderful called progress will happen.
– New York Times: A Mix of the Mafia, the Communist Party and Little Sisters of the Poor.


When Archie Bunker screams, “I’m tired of being mugged, and I’m gonna break some jaws,” it’s the same thing as the black radicals saying, “Get these corrupt cops, dope pushers, and creep social workers out of my neighbourhood!” Because of the difference in political rhetoric and their sociological platform, they’ve got different perspectives. But the good people in both these camps find themselves at war with each other, when they’re actually on the same side, and in this kind of struggle, it’s only the giant bureaucracies that win. Quickly we find that the most virulent white racists can begin to respect blacks who stand up for themselves, and that when blacks meet really tough whites for the first time, instead of middle-class social worker lames, a mutual respect builds to where they can work together.

The toughest gangsters are verbally more racist when they come here, and racist in terms of who they hang out with. But the tougher they are, the more quickly they will grant respect to a member of another ethnic group who behaves in a fashion acceptable to their code.
– SQSwans: Excerpts: John Maher of Delancey Street, by Grover Sales.


Delancey Street Foundation

What are Delancey Street’s accomplishments?

In 1971 Delancey Street began with 4 residents, a thousand dollar loan, and a dream to develop a new model to turn around the lives of substance abusers, former felons, and others who have hit bottom by empowering the people with the problems to become their own solution. Thirty-five years later we remain true to our mission. We have been taking in as residents representatives of our society’s most serious social problems and, by a process of each one helping another, with no professionals, no government funding, and at no charge to the clients, we have been solving these problems: generations of poverty, illiteracy, lack of job skills, hardcore substance abuse, homelessness, repeat felons, gang members, teen pregnancies, perpetrators and victims of every kind of abuse. After an average of 4 years, our residents gain academic education, 3 marketable skills, accountability and responsibility, dignity, decency and integrity. We have successfully graduated over 14,000 people from America’s underclass into society as successful, taxpaying citizens leading decent, legitimate and productive lives.

We have pioneered new models of education:

* Over 10,000 formerly illiterate people have received high school equivalency degrees
* Over 1000 have graduated with a diploma from our state accredited post-secondary vocational three year program taught by our own residents.
* Fifty students have received an accredited BA either in Human Relations from our chartered college campus through Golden Gate University or majoring in Delancey’s Urban Studies program through San Francisco State University.
* All eligible students (over 70) have graduated from our nine-year-old charter public high school for juvenile justice youths, 50% of whom have gone on to college; 5% to vocational schools; 3% to the military and the other 42% into career jobs.

This is remarkable considering that 90% entered our school as dropouts and complete school failures.

What is Delancey Street’s History?

In 1971 Delancey Street began with 4 residents, a thousand dollar loan, and a dream to develop a new model to turn around the lives of people in poverty, substance abusers, former felons, and others who have hit bottom, by empowering the people with the problems to become the solution.

We began by taking residents into a small apartment in San Francisco, run by an ex-felon, John Maher, a visionary, fiery orator and charismatic leader. Rather than following the traditional non-profit model of hiring a staff and procuring funding, we chose instead to follow an extended family model. Those of us who could work did traditional jobs and contributed our salaries. (Mimi Silbert, for example, had a doctorate in Criminology and had numerous consulting, teaching and other professional experiences. She worked and contributed her salary.) Everyone did something to contribute to our community. Someone who could cook became our “head chef”. Someone who knew how to hold a hammer became the “head of construction”. Whoever could read tutored those who could not. We pooled our talents and our funds and within 2 years, we purchased our first building and had 80 residents, all learning, teaching and helping each other.

The first home we bought was the former Russian Consulate located in San Francisco’s poshest neighborhood, Pacific Heights. It was also our first “Not In My Backyard” battle. Our two young pro bono attorneys, Mike Berger (who incorporated our organization in 1971, and now still on our Board of Directors, is an Administrative Judge) and Danny Weinstein (now a retired Judge and founder of JAMS – The Resolution Experts) formulated innovative legal arguments; Maher developed brilliant political strategies; Silbert brought residents around to neighbors to volunteer services. We knew that neighbors were worried that crime would go up and property values would go down because we were in the neighborhood. So we patrolled the neighborhood and crime went down; our construction department renovated the mansion to ensure that property values would go up. Residents like Abe Irizarry (then a “graduate” of every prison in California and Mexican Mafia gang member, now our Vice president and Maitre’ D’ of our restaurant), and Joanne Mancuso (then an addict and now a college instructor and a trainer for the judiciary in the federal court in computer programs), and Mike Boris (then a heroin addict, now a Certified Public Accountant), sold raffle tickets where the most coveted prize was the promise “not to move next door to you”. Slowly the neighborhood battle was being won by being good neighbors, by solid legal arguments and political negotiation, by humor and by the good will of everyone involved. Dianne Feinstein, our neighbor in Pacific Heights, then a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, was the first key vote in our favor. By 1977, the battle was finally settled. When we moved from Pacific Heights to our newly self-built home on the waterfront (almost 20 years later), our Pacific Heights neighbors reported they were upset to see us leave.

Delancey Street Foundation.


SQSwans John Maher Reports