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Lessons Learned at 'Harvard for Losers'

The Delancey Street Foundation takes drug addicts, ex-convicts and the homeless, and trains them for the real world.

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Imagine a place where former drug addicts, ex-convicts and the homeless can go to find housing, employment and education. When they leave for the "real world" again, they've learned the skills to become successful attorneys, doctors, and yes, even cops. It may sound like a pipe dream, but it's not. It's called the Delancey Street Foundation, a place founder Mimi Silbert has dubbed the "Harvard for Losers."

Silbert, 66, is president, chairman of the board and CEO of Delancey Street, but she earns as much as everyone else in her company: nothing. Everyone who lives at Delancey Street (and Silbert does), receives food, housing, clothing and education at no cost; but all resources are funneled back into the community. Residents commit to a minimum two-year stay, during which time they work toward a high-school equivalency degree and receive training in three marketable skills. Most opt for a longer stay and complete a four-year program.

Like any pioneering , Silbert succeeded against incredible odds. In 1971, armed with just a $1,000 loan and a strategy for a new rehabilitation model, she took four residents into a small apartment owned by ex-felon John Maher. They worked as an extended family, growing as they pooled their salaries and talents. Within two years, Delancey Street had 80 residents, who together purchased a building in Pacific Heights, one of San Francisco's poshest neighborhoods.

Now, Silbert and approximately 500 residents live at Delancey Street's headquarters on the Embarcadero Triangle waterfront. The 400,000-square-foot complex--built by the residents themselves--was completed in 1990 and boasts highly regarded retail, education and recreational facilities.

Perhaps even more astounding is the fact that Silbert's organization, which operates five residential facilities in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, New Mexico, and North Carolina, employs no staff, charges no fees, and receives no government aid. The Foundation's operating costs are funded by donations and revenue from its for-profit enterprises, which include a café and art gallery, a Christmas tree sales and decorating service, a popular screening room, and the successful Delancey Street Restaurant--run entirely by residents.

With doctoral degrees in counseling psychology and criminology from the University of California, Berkeley, Silbert doesn't have the typical background of many entrepreneurs. But with more than 14,000 graduates, Delancey Street is a successful entrepreneurial venture. Silbert's foundation continues to grow, too, having recently acquired a sixth building in Massachusetts, where residents will have the opportunity to develop their talents in the arts.

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