Is the well-connected Delancey Street merely helping Gavin fine-tune his future?
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What exactly is Gavin Newsom doing at Delancey Street?
It's not counseling, we're told. It's not rehab. It's not detox. It's not a typical course of treatment at the storied $20 million nonprofit. So what is it beyond a reprieve from the otherwise ugly headlines?
Newsom isn't talking much about his program. But some mental-health professionals are raising serious questions about his regimen.
San Francisco's chief executive declared several weeks ago in a public announcement to all the city's department heads that he was seeking a diluted version of rehab at Delancey Street.
That struck more than a few people as odd. Delancey Street doesn't do part-time or outpatient treatment. It only takes clients who agree to a long-term, full-time residential program geared entirely toward hardcore alcoholics, drug addicts, and criminals.
It's not, in other words, a place where someone in Newsom's condition would typically seek help. And it's not a place designed to alleviate a comparatively minor thirst for white wine.
The news certainly appalled Dee-Dee Stout.
Stout is a City College of San Francisco professor and an adjunct faculty member at San Francisco State University. It's her job to train city employees working in any major capacity that involves medically treating alcohol and drug abuse, from San Francisco General Hospital to Community Behavioral Health Services to the Adult Probation Department.
Stout, a certified drug and alcohol counselor, told us friends who'd seen the headlines said, " 'Oh god, Dee-Dee's going to hit the roof on this one.' And they were right."
She struggled to figure out how she could broach the subject to one of her classes at City College but a student beat her to it, quickly pointing out that it was unethical for credentialed treatment specialists to counsel their close friends. The two-year recertification required of caseworkers in the city includes an ethics update, Stout said.
Delancey Street's executive director, Mimi Silbert, has been Newsom's friend since he was a child and knows his father well. Silbert, in fact, has openly discussed Newsom's progress with the press, including the Guardian, while the mayor's own ear-piercing silence on the matter enables him to appear repentant.
Stout decided to offer the student extra credit if he drafted a letter outlining the concerns of the class, which she had colleagues review before sending it along to the entire Board of Supervisors, the Mayor's Office, and pretty much every major newspaper in town.
"This relationship is not acceptable under any applicable code of professional ethics," the letter states. Hardly anyone bothered to write back, save for the auto-response letters Stout received from Sophie Maxwell and the Mayor's Office, plus a letter from Bevan Dufty urging Stout and her students to empathize with Gavin during this difficult time.
Silbert, for her part, told the Guardian that ethics weren't a concern for her because Newsom wasn't a full-tilt drunk and hadn't submitted completely to a detailed treatment plan when he approached her for help.
"The mayor is not a drug addict," Silbert said. "That's not what he was looking for.... Having stopped drinking, he wanted to take a look at himself. He drank what people would call 'socially.' I've seen other people when they stopped drinking even people who didn't need detox and there were physical signs of problems. That's not the shape the mayor was in."
The mayor is attending both group and solo counseling sessions after work each day, a schedule that Silbert told us is still ongoing.
Dannie Lee, a former Delancey Street resident we interviewed, said that during his own stay he attended group therapy three days a week and they were generally no-holds-barred sessions. Lee lived at Delancey Street for three and a half years after spending much of his adult life in California's prison system. While the program ultimately worked for him, he insists, he's skeptical that it could benefit anyone who's trying to attend as an outpatient.
"Maybe it would be great if [Newsom] was actually there as a client or whatever to really sit in a circle and really share his stuff and listen to the group and let the group really attack," said the 49-year-old Lee, who today is one of Stout's students. "That probably would be fine. But I don't see that happening.... I think he would really have to tell things I don't think he wants to tell."
Press accounts have depicted Delancey Street as an abrasive scrub brush for Newsom's sinful indulgences. "No Nonsense: Toughness Key to Delancey Street, Silbert's Success," a Chronicle headline announced Feb. 7. Silbert herself told the Guardian, "No one would come near us if they weren't serious. I'm old, crotchety, and very direct. I have no time to waste."
That may be true and it's clear Delancey Street has had some remarkable success in treating people with severe self-destructive impulses.
San Francisco, on the other hand, years ago eschewed the sort of harsh treatment techniques that have made Delancey Street famous.
H. Westley Clark, director of the federal Center for Substance Abuse Treatment and a one-time clinical professor at the University of California at San Francisco, told us that federal mental-health bureaucrats are less inclined today to fund groups that use confrontational methods for treating clients.
Any local nonprofit agency that wants to provide help to substance abusers using city money must comply with San Francisco's harm reduction policy, which discourages hostile interview techniques and was set in stone by the San Francisco Health Commission seven years ago.
The letter from Stout's class points out that treatment professionals are moving away from tough-love verbal upbraids such as those employed by the Delancey Street model.
" 'Attack therapy' often involves yelling at patients who have, in our view, a medical condition.... While we realize that some patients are helped by strong, confrontational methods, we believe that an evidence-based approach offers more consistent successful results."
Silbert's techniques may be controversial, but she does move easily among Democratic Party rainmakers and philanthropists. Delancey Street enjoys wide popularity with the likes of Robert Redford, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the Washington-based Eisenhower Foundation, and executives at the Gap, Pottery Barn, and Bank of America.
Silbert said the mayor deserves credit for whatever help he chooses to pursue. Other prominent friends of Delancey Street have called her before when they needed to "tune themselves up."
"I would never choose to criticize other people's approaches, so I'm sorry if people are criticizing ours," she said. "We work hard. We do our best.... I'm glad these people feel they have a definitive answer. I don't, and I've been doing it for 35 years."
If Newsom, as Silbert says, isn't a serious alcoholic, Delancey Street is a peculiar place for him to seek help.
Most people entering the program have hit rock bottom, a step away from death or lifelong incarceration. They're one-time prostitutes, drug pushers, robbers, and ruthless bangers. Since the organization was formed in the 1970s, it claims to have transformed the lives of 14,000 people through vocational and education assistance in addition to group counseling.
Very few of those people come in for the sort of casual treatment Newsom is seeking. In fact, Delancey Street typically doesn't accept anyone who isn't planning on spending a couple years in residence.
Residents living at the Embarcadero Triangle provide labor for several businesses that buoy the nonprofit financially, from its famous Delancey Street Restaurant to a national moving and trucking service.
Newsom for the most part is refusing to answer questions about his now-public battle with booze.
But Stout suggests that Newsom, by allowing the entirety of his treatment to appear on a marquee, has brought the publicity on himself. "Frankly, I don't think it's any of our business if he goes to treatment," Stout said. "I wish he would have just quietly gone and did what he needed to do and said he just had some medical things he needed to take care of, period." *