by Matt Lombardini

I have spent the past several months volunteering and coordinating certain aspects of the Sunny Acres program and would like to share what I have become aware of by being on site and having lengthy discussions and interactions with Mr. De Vaul as well as many of the residents (formerly homeless) who live there now.

Sunny Acres has been in operation for over 9 years. It is the only place in San Luis Obispo County that provides a ‘long-term’ living situation for people who were formerly homeless. In addition, people who come to live there are provided with 3 hot meals a day, 12-step recovery meetings held twice weekly, and a unique opportunity to rehabilitate at a pace that works for each on an individual basis. This is accomplished in large part by working on the ranch and performing  jobs such as growing crops, dealing with the 40 head of cattle, repairing and maintaining farm equipment, automobile mechanics and restoration, welding, converting wine barrels into water barrels and more. Training is provided as needed to those who show interest in a particular area.

All of these jobs provide hands on rehabilitation that helps those who are getting sober to stay sober as well as building their self-esteem. Each resident is treated as an individual with their own strengths and weaknesses taken into consideration upon admission. It operates like a large family with the residents carrying each other. Of course, no family is without it’s share of drama and Sunny Acres is in no exception to the rule. That being said, it is through a balance of time, talents and personalities that create an environment that works. A sense of dignity is restored and respect for one another is modeled.

A small stipend of 300.00 per month is asked of those that can afford it. 5 volunteer hours a week at a pace that fits with the individual is also asked. For those unable to pay the fee, they are given the opportunity to work off the fee. Additionally, some of the residents are able to work enough hours to pay for their stay and make money above what is required.

Those with alcohol and substance abuse problems are required to stay sober and are tested on a regular basis. For those who are not successful, they are once again treated on an individual basis and if a true willingness and desire remains to get sober they are given repeat opportunities to realize long-term sobriety. For others whom have mental and/or emotional problems without alcohol or substance abuse they are given the chance to recover via the hands on rehabilitation opportunities.  As long as each individual is able to abide by the simple individualized requirements, they are able to stay as long as they need to. In addition, many of the residents take advantage of county run agencies off the property for support as needed. Residents range in age from 18 to 70 years old. Some are Veterans of war. Others are former professionals who through a series of unfortunate events and in many cases poor choices have found themselves homeless.

After it’s establishment as a 501(c)3 organization it was decided that Sunny Acres would pay a rental fee of 4000.00 per month to Mr. De Vaul. To this day that fee has never been collected. In fact, during the first 7 years of Sunny Acres operation, Mr. De Vaul supplemented the non-profit program with his own funds as needed to keep it going. It is only in the past 2 years that the program has become fully financially self- sustaining. It should also be noted that Mr. De Vaul works many hours each day running the day-to-day operations with the cooperation of the residents living there.

Sunny Acres has never requested or received any Government subsidies or tax dollars. The Food Bank Coalition of San Luis Obispo generously supplies residents (just as it does others with qualifying low income throughout the county) some of their food while the rest comes from being grown on the farm. Monetary donations as well as clothing and other needed items have been graciously received from various community members and businesses. Many community members, some in the field of mental health have donated time in their personal area of expertise over the years.

County run agencies have often referred many of the men and women who have come to stay at Sunny Acres. People working for these agencies have seen first hand the good work being done for the residents living there.

In 9 years of operation the program has never seen a major incident of injury to any of its residents. People who come to stay at Sunny Acres are grateful for a place to live and begin the process of getting their lives back on track. People have come from as far as the east coast to live at Sunny Acres. It is truly a unique program which certainly qualifies with mitigating circumstances that one might conclude should encourage SLO County officials to forgive many of the alleged violations as well as use permits and begin to make it possible for the program to come into its full fruition.

Mr. De Vaul envisions 10 of his 72 acres devoted to the homeless with the rest being developed in 3 tiers beginning with some truly affordable housing. A Master Plan has been drawn up with some of the specifics required to see this vision become a reality. Because he owns the land, this is a viable possibility that could shine a very positive light on the County in terms of efforts to provide some truly affordable housing as well as helping the homeless. SLO County has adopted a “10 year plan to end homelessness” and Sunny Acres is uniquely positioned to help it realize this goal.

By going to Jail, Mr. De Vaul hopes to raise awareness around some of the injustice that can occur as a result of government interaction with private land-owners who sometimes choose to provide much needed services such as housing the homeless. Dan De Vaul does not claim to be a saint. He is a man though who seems to have been captivated by the spirit in a way that compels him to help some of the least fortunate in our society. Unconventional but effective, it cannot be denied that many have been directly and positively affected through the efforts of Mr. De Vaul and the Sunny Acres Program.

Matt Lombardini can be reached at: [email protected]

Sunny Acres website: www.sunnyacresca.com