♪ Some lives remind us of hard facts, the trauma of war.
the easy relief of drugs, the way both can distort decades.
But as I have learned in every interview, most lives defy reduction.
We are alternately brave and lost, hardworking and addicted, resigned and inspired.
Del Seymour is both a follower who sold drugs and a strategic, compelling leader showing us how to bring a whole population back to life.
I'm Kelly Corrigan, this is "Tell Me More," and here is my conversation with Vietnam vet, paramedic, and the unelected mayor of one of the grittiest neighborhoods in America, Del Seymour.
It's really an honor to have you.
Thank you for saying yes.
Oh, I'm happy to be here.
I'm really happy to be here today.
Tell us about the Tenderloin tours.
Oh, well, you got to come on the tour.
I can't give no free previews, but I'll give you--I'll give you a little insight.
What we do is we take you on one of the most interesting neighborhoods in the world.
The Tenderloin is one of our worst neighborhoods in the United States for drug use, open air drug use.
Right now, there are thousands of people in a 6 square block area using drugs openly, right now as we sit here.
I bring you through, but you can see, feel, touch, and really get into the Tenderloin.
I want you to come on my tour and understand why these people are living like this, what happened to them, how do you deal with them.
I want you to look at them as a person.
Forget that adjective, homeless.
This is a person.
This is a auntie.
This is a daughter.
This is a husband.
This is a father.
This is a son.
This is a veteran.
There's no planet called Homeless where a rocket ship dropped down here years ago and everybody jumped off the rocket ship.
These are your neighbors.
These are your cousins.
Even you in your life, I bet you I could quiz you right now, and I can come up with at least two people homeless in your family.
Everyone in the United States has homeless people in their families.
What we don't do, like most legitimate countries, if your last name is Smith, ain't no Smith going to be homeless in your town because you know they're related to you.
And if all the Smiths would go get their Smiths, all Seymours would go get their Seymours, all the Johnsons would go get the Johnsons, we wouldn't have homelessness anymore.
And we just don't do that.
♪ So you started taking people on tours...
because you wanted them to understand, to see and hear and internalize the humanity.
I wanted them to meet folks.
I wanted them to talk to folks.
Market Street separates the Tenderloin from the tech.
All the techies are on the south side of Market.
We're on the north side of the Market.
But you could tell they would walk through the neighborhood and see 25 guys standing on the corner, 25 girls standing on this corner, they had their nose up.
And I says, "I saw how you looked at my group of folks.
You know why they stand on the corner?"
I said, "They stand on the corner "because they can't get in your building.
"They can't get in the Salesforce tower.
They can't get in the Twitter tower."
"Oh, well, you know, they can't code.
That's why they can't get there."
"Oh, that's the only reason?
OK." So I opened Code Tenderloin.
My thing is to bridge that street.
You all better come over here so you can learn who we are, and we want to go over there to learn who you are.
Once I got my neighborhood to understand what I'm doing, because they was, they were, "Del, why are you bringing all these white folks in our neighborhood?"
And then once they understand why, that I'm bringing them in for us so people can understand us and work towards getting us better resources.
I have contracts with Twitter, Zendesk, Adobe Sound, LinkedIn, and other tech companies.
All their new employees have to come out with me, so they will be better employees in the neighborhood and knowing how--what it takes to do-- to do development and charitable giving and all of that.
And why is it called Code Tenderloin?
Because coding is a medical word in the hospital.
When they say "code," something's wrong.
So I call it Code Tenderloin.
Believe it or not, the object initially was not to start a coding school.
I just said Code Tenderloin because what I just explained.
People started relating that word, well, do you do coding?
For the first couple of times, said-- I said, "Well, no, maybe we should," because at that time, coding was big.
There was a big need in the tech community for coders.
How many people have come through Code Tenderloin?
And what's your greatest satisfaction and what's your greatest frustration?
Oh, my greatest satisfaction would be just getting on the bus or getting on the train and having someone sitting next to me and telling me, "I went to your school and you got me a house.
"You got me a job.
"You got me a mortgage on my house.
"And I got a brand-new car because of you and Code Tenderloin."
That's--and just sitting on the bus like that, it happens so much.
And the worst frustration is not being able to house people.
When I walk through the Tenderloin, I see a 75-year-old Black man laying in his own waste.
And when I look at him, I'm looking at me.
And ain't nothing I can do for him.
And that's frustrating.
I can't work miracles.
I do the best I can.
I know my limitations.
I know the people that I can get help for and the people that I'm not able to get help with.
We're trying to better that situation.
You know, I share the Homeless Board at City Hall under Mayor Breed, and we just had our monthly meeting just an hour before I got here.
And it was so frustrating trying to get our city to understand our needs and to cut the bureaucracy, not make this--when our homeless folks go to an agency, they don't need to be treated like they're at DMV.
"Oh, go wait in the line 17," because the second time you tell them that, they're hitting the door.
We had a woman on the show this season.
Her name's Maya Shankar, and she's a cognitive scientist.
And she was trying to make small changes to policies and also to the forms and bureaucracy that you have to fill out or endure to get your--get access to your benefits.
And they just made these very small changes on a bunch of forms, and 12 million kids were getting free lunch all of a sudden, and tons of veterans were getting their healthcare.
That's what it's about.
That's what it's about.
And I tell my own--I have a staff of 90 people right now, and I walk through our intake rooms, and I'll see a client struggling with a form.
And I have to tell my employee, "Hey, hey, hey, You see that form every day."
"You're intimate with this form.
They've never seen that form."
So don't shoot because they can't understand what to put here.
My whole thing is, we are not DMV.
We're not going to have you standing in the wrong line and tell you--and tell you first, "You know you're in the wrong line," like they'll do at DMV.
Who is supporting Code Tenderloin?
How are you getting your donations?
How are you getting to Jack Dorsey?
Our major funding comes from the City of San Francisco, City and County of San Francisco, because we do job training for them.
We do workforce development job training for them and the tech training and the robotics.
Jack Dorsey, I did a video with him some years ago, and he asked in the video, "Del, do you need some help?"
And I said, "Well, I think something like $100,000 might help us out."
And he--and he immediately says, "I'm not giving no nonprofit, no $100,000."
I said, "Oh, man, I done blew it now.
Oh, my God."
And he says, "Let's start with 1.5 million.
Would that be better?"
And so he wind up giving us 1.6.
And we've had other people like that.
We had the CEO of eBay came to my office and says, this is some years ago, "What do you need?"
And I said, "We could use a couple laptops.
We don't have any laptops."
He says, "I'll have 100 brand-new Apples here tomorrow morning."
And the next morning UPS came with 3 trucks and started unloading brand-new boxes of laptops.
And then he called me later that day.
He said, "Did you get them?"
I said, "Yes, man.
We got 100 brand-new laptops."
He said, "Now, if you sell them, sell them on eBay."
Ha ha ha!
♪ So you're a Chicago guy?
And your mom was a healthcare worker.
She was a healthcare worker.
We lived in the projects on the South Side of Chicago.
The housing projects there are little mini villages that are self-supported.
Unbelievable place to grow up, but very educational as far as surviving life.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
My whole life was standing on watching fire trucks go up and down the street, up and down my street, up and down my street.
On the weekends, after school, I would go hang out at the firehouse, and they'd let me sweep up, you know, clean the windows and rub on the hubcaps on the truck and all of that.
And then right out of high school, you went to Vietnam.
Yes, I did.
And what was your job there?
I was a medic, helicopter medic, working on the Huey Bravos.
My job was evacuating servicemen who were mortally injured with a head or chest shots.
I actually was based in the country right near Vietnam that we really still can't talk about.
So I was there for almost a year.
Tell me about that country.
It was a country I didn't see much of because I was on the choppers, but it was a country that people were just as tired of a war as we were.
No one wanted to be in this war.
It appears a lot of times that you saw your enemy.
You never saw the enemy because they were 3 or 4,000 feet away.
And even then, especially at night, and you never saw--you saw a little movement in the grass, but you never saw who you were shooting at.
And they probably didn't, either.
How long were you there?
Oh, almost a year.
And then what happened when you came back?
I went to Los Angeles.
And what was your job?
Firefighter/paramedic, about 7 years.
And then became a single father.
And the pressure of doing the 24-hour shifts were too difficult to find child care.
Now, looking back, I would have done it differently.
I would have made more efforts, now realizing what a champion job that was.
So you were on a decent track, and then you got way off track?
You know, a lot of people would like to say I took a left turn on life.
And I'm thinking that life might have took a left turn on me.
My first drug use was in my thirties, late thirties.
And what happened?
I don't know what happened.
I facilitate a lot of meetings.
And I tell people, don't stir the pot.
Don't start going back.
"Let's see, when was it?
What day was it?
Who was I with?"
You keep stirring long enough, you're going to get--you-- the meal will be done.
And that means your life will be done again.
So I don't remember when, I don't want to remember when or who or what.
I pulled into the Tenderloin, got out of my car, and I immediately said, "They're shooting a movie," because I'm seeing all these zombies walking around, people with needles in their arms.
I said, "They're shooting one of those-- one of those B-movies."
And I kept looking for the camera, couldn't find the camera.
But by 8:00 that night, I found the camera, and it was me.
And I was-- I joined that movie, and I stayed in that movie for 18 years.
What got you out?
Mine was a church that I encountered, San Francisco Christian Center, with a wonderful pastor named Joe Taybron and Walter and Pastor Giddings.
They came down to the Tenderloin and brought me a suit.
I love suits.
And I said, "What are you doing here?"
They said, "Well, the church wanted you to have this brand-new suit."
And it still had the tag on it, $300.
So I'm trying to figure out who in the hell would be bringing people in the-- dope fiends $300 suits.
And so I'm thinking, "Well, maybe these are just marks.
Maybe these are suckers."
I said, "What's your address?"
Because it's a Saturday morning when they came to see me.
Ad they gave me the address and I said, "I'll be out there for church tomorrow morning."
And they say, "OK, OK, we'll be here."
And they left.
And the next morning, I got on the bus and took the bus and walked in there with the whole mission of motive is to get something from these suckers.
And I walked in that church, and you know what I got from these suckers?
Got my life back.
I got my life back that morning.
And then it hasn't changed since.
I'm still at that church every Sunday.
That was 14 years ago.
Now, understand, nothing works exactly like that.
It was a lot of other things going on, you know?
In other words, I was such a broken automobile, if you want to phrase it like that.
I didn't need a screwdriver.
I needed that whole rollout toolkit.
So there was a lot of things that kept me--not only got me clean, but kept me clean.
There are two important days in recovery that people don't realize.
One of the important days is the day that you do not use drugs again.
It's not the most important day.
The most important day is the day that you don't want to use drugs anymore.
Those are two different days.
For me, between the day that I stopped using drugs and the day I didn't want to use those drugs no more was 3 years apart.
Those 3 years are the most miserable days of my entire life because every day I got up and wanted to use, every afternoon I wanted to use, every night, I wanted to use.
But I had made that commitment to me that I would not use any more.
Finally, 3 years later, I woke up one morning, I didn't feel nothing.
And I tell other people young in recovery, "Wait for that day, bro.
It's going to come.
Wait for that day."
♪ In those 18 years that you were using, had there been other times when you tried to quit?
Oh, all the time.
Do you have any insight into why it was the 40th time you tried to quit instead of the 39th, instead of the 38th, instead of the 37th?
You never know when it's going to come.
There's no script to this.
This is not science.
This is not technology.
You never know when it's going to come.
It's when the cravings stop, the moral cravings stop.
Once you align your mind with your body, because they are definitely connected, and you make that goal.
I've got shot, stabbed.
That didn't stop it.
Gone to jail 14--been in jail 14 different times, that didn't stop it.
We don't look at addiction the way that we should.
Addiction is a disease no different than cancer, no different than leukemia.
It's a disease.
And we got to treat it like a disease and understand the way to remedy a man's cancer is with treatment.
If you got cancer, I can't tell you just stop cancer, as you know.
Just stop using it.
Just stop using.
You can't do that.
So why do you think you can do it with me?
I need the same amount of intensive care and treatment as a cancer patient.
So when you got clean, then how long was it before you developed Code Tenderloin?
I immediately developed Tenderloin Walking Tours, which cloned Code Tenderloin out of that.
So there was a gap between like 5 years.
There was a line on your website that said part of your work is improving self-perception.
And I wondered how hard or easy it has been for you to build up people's self-esteem after they've had such a shame-filled experience.
Your dignity is the most important thing in your life, and this is a place where you can develop it.
And I tell them I don't have a bucket of it in the back room.
You got it in you already, you just don't know where it is.
And once I can restore people's belief in their dignity, you better step out of their way because they're going to run over you.
Does that feel like the key?
Like when you-- That's the key.
We don't believe in ourselves.
We don't believe we can get out of this.
I dress like this every day of my life when I'm in the Tenderloin.
And the reason why I do, everybody remembers me laying on that street.
So it's easy for me to tell you how you can improve your life, if I can show you.
I got to give you a reason to get off the ground.
And we have done so many makeovers for people based on that.
And success comes in different ways.
I took one guy off the street who was using, actively using, and I brought him into our class.
I said, "I need you to start this computer classes.
"And first I need to get you clean.
You need to stop."
I took him to a program, got him to where he was not using anymore.
We cleaned him up.
We got him physically clean, got him clothed up, got him, you know, leather shoes instead of those gym shoes.
And we got him looking excellent.
He went to the class for 3 weeks and he disappeared.
And I said, "Oh, my God, I don't know what happened to him."
Two weeks later, I ran into him and he said, "Del, you know, I've been hiding from you."
I said, "Yeah, that's OK. What's going on?"
And he says, "Man, I can't do that coding.
I just can't do that."
He says, "But, Del, I'm clean."
That was major.
Put tears in my eyes.
That was major.
He said--and I still see him every couple of weeks, and he's still clean and looking like he's on Fifth Avenue.
So that's the part of dignity that we give people back.
I want you to be able to call your kids.
90% of the times when I reunite a family and my guy or my girl is saying, "Man, they ain't going to take me back.
Man, they don't want to hear from me."
I said, "Yes, they do."
And 90% of the time, "Yeah, where is he at?
We'll come get him."
People don't realize that they built a wall around them when they get like that for protection.
I know I did.
I ran away from home for a year.
But there is plenty of forgiveness.
That's what we all got to have.
What does the whole country misunderstand about homelessness?
If the President of the United States said, "Del, tell me, what should I do to move "the needle to get more people into jobs and homes and back reunited with their family," what would you tell him?
A pure homeless scenario, a person that's there not because he loves being on the street, they like the social life.
Not that they like being on concrete, but they like the fact they're out seeing people all day long.
It's just like being at the park, and they like that and they nurture it.
We have given keys to people to a room or a hotel room, and two weeks later or a week later walked out, they're back in the tent.
I say, "Man, I got you a nice room."
"Yeah, but ain't nobody up there but me, and I can't take it."
You got to incentivize people to seek help.
No different than when you got to work today.
You came here, hopefully, to see me.
But secondly, to get a paycheck.
That's an incentive.
You can't take that dope dealer who's making $200 a day and tell him to get off the corner and get into a program.
Who's going to pay that $200 a day?
He released-- he needs that $200 a day.
He needs shoes on his feet.
He needs to pay rent like anyone else.
So in order for him to get off the street, give him a reason.
Say, "OK, let me get you off of this corner "where you getting shot at, getting arrested.
I'll give you 150."
And that's what we do in our programs.
We stipend all of our programs.
We have a thing that we like to do at "Tell Me More."
It's called Plus One, where we ask you to shout out somebody who's been instrumental to your life or your well-being or your thinking.
Who is your Plus One?
Well, I almost like to say San Francisco Christian Center, so many people involved.
But specifically, it was my pastor, Joe Taybron.
He believed in me.
He didn't even know me from Adam, but he believed in me.
I went out to the church and they gave me the suit, and I just felt at home.
I didn't want to leave the church that Sunday morning.
The next Monday morning, he calls me and says, "Hey, can you get out here?"
And I didn't know what for.
I got on the bus and went out there and we talked for about 20 minutes and he says, "Well, how's your housing situation?"
I said, "Well, I got a place for a few days, "but I'm getting ready-- "I'll be getting ready to get put out tomorrow because I owe the landlord $1,700."
So we kept talking and he left the room for a few minutes, and he came back and he says, "Here," and he dropped $1,700 on the table.
He said, "Go pay your rent, brother."
I've known this man two days.
The next day he calls me and takes me to Men's Wearhouse and walks in the door and tells the clerk, "Give him two of everything because he don't have nothing."
And he threw the church's credit card up on the desk, and they gave me-- I still got some of those clothes.
That's 14 years ago.
Gave me two of everything-- socks, underwear, shirts, ties, overcoats, raincoats.
He believed in me.
And that's what faith is, because I could have walked out the door with that $1,700 and went and bought a bag of dope.
But you didn't.
♪ There's just a lot of necessary discomfort in the work that you do.
Would you say that that's, like, a part of your success?
Well, every day I got to fight discomfort.
I got to fight making the decision to be uncomfortable in order to go greet someone, in order to call the guy 20 times about, "Do you have a bed for my client?"
And that's not comfortable calling the same call 19, 20 times.
But I just do it because maybe the 20th time I made him mad enough where he'll give me the bed.
I'm asking the guy who's comfortable in his tent, real comfortable in his tent, because you know what the difference between a tent and an actual brick and mortar?
That tent belongs to him.
He owns that tent.
That's--he calls the shots.
He makes the rules.
He figures out what time the lights go out, the lights come on.
When I take him out of that to try to put him in a congregate shelter, he loses all of that.
So he--I'm asking him to be uncomfortable.
If he can be uncomfortable for 2 or 3 months, then I can get him permanent housing.
And that's the most difficult thing, too, convincing them to be uncomfortable for 2 or 3 months.
And what about on a personal level for you?
What do you do that makes you uncomfortable?
Well, just recently, a few years ago, I hadn't talked to my sister in 19 years, and she lives in Chicago.
And the stress of not being with her and knowing she's getting older, I'm getting older, I decided to get on an airplane and just fly to Chicago and knock on her door and see what happens.
That was an uncomfortable ride to Chicago because I didn't know what was going to happen.
And I just went and knocked on the door, and she opened the door and we hugged and kissed.
And she passed away not too long ago, but we talked every day until then.
I went to visit her 3 or 4 times after that, and that was very uncomfortable thing to do.
Yeah, but it's also, it's that proof that repair is possible.
We built that falsehood that people won't forgive us for something that we did or something that they did.
And you never know.
You'll see, and I tell people, when you think there's only one way to forgiveness, it's always both ways.
You've done something to them, but they've done something to you by your standards.
So quit playing that, who is guilty?
You're not a judge.
Maybe nobody's guilty.
Just go do it.
So I asked you a question about what made you get addicted and when was the last time you used and you said those aren't really the most important questions.
What is the most important question to ask somebody about addiction?
I think the most important question to ask about addiction, is what do you need?
What can I do to help you get clean?
I know you're trying, and I know you've been unsuccessful.
What can I do to help you get clean?
What would it take?
Yeah, that's it.
And then leave them alone.
Let's say, "You call me when you're ready.
"Here's my number.
You call me 24 hours when you're ready, when you're ready."
How many times have you been awoken in the night by somebody-- Every night.
♪ You ready for the speed round?
I think so.
Let's give it a-- let's give it a try.
Best live performance you've ever seen.
That would be Jimi Hendrix.
If your high school did superlatives, what would you have been most likely to become?
Governor of Illinois.
Is there anyone you would like to apologize to?
Oh, everyone that I couldn't help.
Everyone I didn't give enough time.
I look back on my encounters and I said, "What if I gave a little more time?
"What if I made one more phone call?
What if I went out of the way a little more?"
You know, and it's just... and I can't turn that around.
What's something big you've been wrong about?
Ha ha ha!
About a woman who I sent to a job at Microsoft.
She had a very heavy criminal record, and they hired her here in San Francisco.
And when they got to Seattle, they said, "Hell no, we don't hire people with backgrounds, not that type of background."
And she says, "Del, I'm going to fight them."
I said, "You can't fight Microsoft.
Let me get you a job somewhere else."
She says, "No, I'm going to fight them."
And I said, "You can't fight Microsoft.
That's just going to make you more depressed."
She fought Microsoft, and now she's one of the top employees at Microsoft.
She travels the whole world with Microsoft, giving talks about how she fought back.
And I'm just so glad that she didn't listen to me.
♪ How do you know how to manage people and run an organization?
Like, is it all on-the-job training or are you, like, just another entrepreneur who's putting it together?
I got a wonderful team.
They're all lived experience.
We all came from the streets, so it's very easy dealing with emotions and body language and understanding and language and lingo.
And do you have energy to do this work forever?
I want to sit on my back porch.
One day soon, I'm going to be sitting on my back porch because I got such a team, such a team there, and they all emulate me and they know my missions.
They always saying, "Del wouldn't do it like this, so we're not."
I hope I get to sit on your back porch with you sometime.
That's a deal.
That's a deal.
Bring your fishing pole.
♪ If you enjoyed this conversation, you'll love our episodes with Bryan Stevenson, Father Greg Boyle, and Dolores Huerta.
You can listen to every episode on my podcast, "Kelly Corrigan Wonders" or watch anytime on PBS.org/kelly.
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