- FILE PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
- SUNNY ACRES SWAN SONG? : Maybe not. Despite a dramatic announcement, Dan DeVaul says he’s still in touch with county lawyers and won’t be evicting any residents.
It very much sounded like the end of the line for Dan DeVaul’s work with the homeless and penniless. The founder of the ramshackle Sunny Acres treatment center went on Dave Congalton’s radio show July 27 and announced he was done fighting county code enforcers and the district attorney’s office and so was closing the center, which would no longer house, feed, or counsel some 40 residents as of July 30. At the same time, announcements went out to the media and county officials.
“I’ve shot my wad,” DeVaul said. “I can’t fight city hall.”
The announcement provoked responses from county officials, speeches at the board of supervisors meetings, and much media coverage. But DeVaul’s words may have sharpened the point a bit more than the reality of the situation calls for.
In fact, while DeVaul is certainly challenging the county to fill in the gaps that would be left if he were to stop his work, he called New Times the day after the announcement and allowed that he has no intention of evicting the residents or even throwing away the donated food he has on hand. He strongly hinted the residents will be welcome as long as they want to stay.
Asked if he truly intends to stop housing and feeding folks come Aug. 1, he sighed and answered: “I doubt it seriously.”
In other words, while Sunny Acres may formally close, that doesn’t mean DeVaul’s work with the addicted, mentally ill, and others will end. He also said he and attorneys have been meeting with county attorneys to talk about possible solutions to the various issues surrounding Sunny Acres.
“I do have some hope of negotiations,” he said.
(County Counsel Warren Jensen said he wasn’t aware of any ongoing talks.)
So what was the intention of the announcement?
“I said I’m tired of fighting the county with these people in the middle,” he said. “The fighting has to end.”
He said he came to that conclusion after a recent raid, originated after firefighters were called out to respond to a tent fire, from numerous county and state agencies.
“Here they come armed to the teeth, flak jacketed, terrifying the shit out of everyone, going in to my apartment, looking into all my shit, rounding up all the people, making them stand out in the goddamned sun … all so they could get two samples of water.”
Setting aside the drama in DeVaul’s announcement, as a practical matter there aren’t many mechanisms in county government to stop the code enforcement processes that have already been launched against DeVaul. There also don’t seem to be formal processes that would have county officials stopping by to gather up Sunny Acres residents and send them elsewhere.
Lee Collins, director of the county’s Department of Social Services, said that, except for the case of people under the formal control of someone else—such as those with guardians—the county doesn’t have authority to tell people where to go.
“To the extent that Mr. DeVaul is expecting county buses to line up and start hauling people away, that is not going to happen,” Collins said.
DeVaul would likely have to initiate an eviction process if he wanted county workers to forcibly move people, something that seems unlikely.
And County Code Enforcement Director Art Trinidade told television reporters he saw DeVaul’s announcement as nothing more than spin.
The county had been putting up an increasingly rigid front in recent months by seizing cars, padlocking mobile homes, and threatening to shutter the kitchen Sunny Acres had been using to feed residents. The District Attorney also launched criminal charges against DeVaul stemming from code violations.
DeVaul said he’s spent $35,000 on legal fees, even though criminal attorney Jeffrey Stulberg has represented him pro bono.
DeVaul has run the center for 11 years. In a statement, he said he’d provided some 150,000 meals to residents who would have otherwise been homeless. The center had served as many as 73 residents at a time. Ironically, for years many Sunny Acres residents were sent that way by county officials themselves. The Sheriff’s Department would seek help finding housing for sex offenders, which the department was charged with monitoring. Probation workers would approach DeVaul and others about finding homes for hard-to-place people.
As recently as last week, Stulberg said, county mental health officials inquired if DeVaul could house a man who’d been an inpatient.
If DeVaul isn’t evicting residents, though, it doesn’t mean the recent announcement doesn’t have them worried. At the July 28 board of supervisors meeting, Sunny Acres’ Hope Garcia stood alone at a podium facing a board of stone-faced county supervisors. Her voice cracked and quivered the more she spoke. It was as if at that moment she realized she might be out on the street again.
“I have nowhere else to go,” she said, struggling to keep her voice from breaking. “Thank you for your time.”
She walked back to her seat, dropped her head in her hands, and sobbed briefly. About half a dozen Sunny Acres Ranch residents came to the board of supervisors meeting to tell their stories and plead for the county to back off of DeVaul for his code violations.
Garcia has lived in SLO for 10 years, she said. She’s been homeless for seven years but found shelter and sobriety at Sunny Acres about a year ago.
“The man saved my life,” said Jimmy Lack, who’s been living on the ranch since 2002.
Lack leaned in and kissed Garcia on the head as he walked out of the board chambers. Still wiping tears from her eyes, Garcia was the last to walk out. DeVaul shuffled out of the room with his characteristic limp and Garcia followed.
Managing Editor Patrick Howe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.