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Old SLO orphanage, plagued by fire and ghost stories, to become home for adults with mental illness

Abandoned Sunny Acres in SLO to become housing for mental health clients

Construction is set to begin by March 2018 to transform the abandoned and storied brick Sunny Acres building in San Luis Obispo into affordable housing units for adults receiving mental health services with Transitions-Mental Health Association. H
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Construction is set to begin by March 2018 to transform the abandoned and storied brick Sunny Acres building in San Luis Obispo into affordable housing units for adults receiving mental health services with Transitions-Mental Health Association. H

Efforts to transform the long-abandoned Sunny Acres orphanage and juvenile detention center in San Luis Obispo into homes for adults suffering from mental illness will finally get underway in March — with hopes to open in September 2019.

Transitions-Mental Health Association, which signed an option to buy the 1.3-acre property and old brick building from the county in 2014, recently cleared the last hurdle when it received more than $4.5 million in tax credit financing. It began pursuing the project in 2011.

The project, called Bishop Street Studios, will restore the deteriorating structure and add three new buildings to house 33 mental-health clients and an on-site manager. It’s estimated to cost about $12 million, with most of the money coming from a combination of state and federal funds along with $1.5 million from local donors. Organizers are still hoping to raise $500,000 in local donations.

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“The reason this project was ever contemplated is we have a tremendous problem finding housing for the clients we serve, who tend to be low-income,” said Jill Bolster-White, executive director of Transitions-Mental Health. “We’ve found permanent, stable housing is elemental in even starting recovering from persistent mental illness.”

Opened as an orphanage and abandoned as a juvenile hall in the 1970s, Sunny Acres is rumored to be haunted. But really, the old brick building will soon be renovated and open again in 2019 to provide affordable housing for adults who receive menta

Residents of Bishop Street Studios will be clients of both the county Behavioral Health Department and Transitions-Mental Health. Priority will be given to clients who live here, Bolster-White said.

“Demand is going to be many times what the availability will be,” she said.

Many of the adult clients who could live at Bishop Street Studios lack adequate housing they’re couch-surfing at friends’ apartments, for example, or living with family because they can’t afford to rent on their own, Bolster-White said.

Housing clients makes a monumental difference and may lessen the strain on other community services, she said. For example, the 50Now program, designed to house San Luis Obispo’s most vulnerable residents, reduced those individuals’ stays at the psychiatric hospital and emergency rooms between 60 and 90 percent, Bolster-White.

Affordability is key, officials said. Rent is capped by the state, and subsidies will be available for those who can’t afford it, said Scott Smith, executive director of Housing Authority of San Luis Obispo, a partner in the project.

Remaking Sunny Acres

Plans call for preserving much of the exterior and clay-tiled roof of the main building, which opened as an orphanage in 1931 and was transformed into a county juvenile detention facility until it was closed in the 1970s. But a fireplace near the center of the second floor is about all that will remain of the mostly destroyed interior.

In a recent tour of the facility, Bolster-White joked that interior demolition is already done. Chunks of floor, wall and ceiling are missing, and what’s left between peeling flakes of paint is covered with graffiti. Gnarled metal bars dangle across hallways, and rooms are lit by rays of sunlight that pierce holes in the boards covering glassless windows.

The city of San Luis Obispo has long had an interest in maintaining the historical integrity of the building, which in some circles has a reputation for being haunted, and in September 2016 the project was unanimously approved by the city Architectural Review Commission and Cultural Heritage Committee.

Not everyone loves the project, however, and some neighbors objected to the plan, including one man who appealed the project to the city arguing that that it doesn’t sufficiently protect the community from potential illegal and unruly behavior by future tenants. He instead wanted the building to become a Center for the Arts, but the City Council voted 4-0 last November to deny the appeal.

“We’re really excited,” Bolster-White said Tuesday at the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors meeting when announcing the project’s planned construction.

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