Letters to the Editor

Viewpoint: Some background as De Vaul goes national

Rumor has it that Dan De Vaul is going to take his continuing dispute with the county on a national road show. Purportedly, he is going to appear on “Good Morning America” and “Larry King Live” with his lawyer. In order for the general public to understand what they are looking at if they watch these programs, a little background is in order.

Sunny Acres — the name given to De Vaul’s 70 acres off Los Osos Valley Road — is zoned agricultural. De Vaul has his living quarters above an old barn surrounded by what can charitably be called a collection of rusting, dilapidated vehicles. For about 10 years he has offered refuge to homeless people.

His problems arise from the nature of his facilities to house and feed residents of Sunny Acres. The safety of the housing has been the source of an ongoing dispute with county code enforcement.

De Vaul takes the position that if he provides shelter of any kind, that ought to be acceptable. The county maintains that whatever the housing arrangements are, they must meet safety code with regard to wiring, construction, etc. When the dispute between the county and De Vaul degenerated into criminal charges and lawsuits, the problem became stalemated. There was a danger the entire project would be closed down and the residents thrown out on the streets.

Mediation effort

County officials approached Dee Torres, a local homeless services director, to see if she would be willing to mediate this problem. Torres asked for the aid of others including myself, Richard Margetson, Chuck Crotser and Stephan Lamb. All members of the group have been very active in support of causes to aid the homeless.

This group of volunteers met with De Vaul and his attorney for the sole purpose of resolving the stalemate in the best interest of the residents of Sunny Acres. De Vaul seemed to welcome the efforts.

It was obvious to our group that county officials welcomed our participation and badly wanted problems with Mr. De Vaul to be resolved.

They seemed imaginative and conciliatory in their approach.

Both sides agreed to forget about the rancorous history and not indulge in blame, but to address the problems as they existed.

In these meetings with county people, when De Vaul was not present, both short-term and long-term solutions to the sheltering of homeless people on the De Vaul property were outlined.

Safety hazards

One of the main problems involved about six wooden sheds constructed as shelters. These are, in effect, large wooden boxes just big enough to house two bunk beds in each, giving De Vaul the potential to house four people in each one. He chose to run electrical wires across his yard to each of these sheds. Alarmingly, for some reason he coated each of these sheds with crank case oil.

Another major problem involved kitchen and dining facilities, which are housed in a converted dairy barn. The kitchen is fraught with safety hazards and poses many risks to the residents.

As it stands now, under county rules, this kitchen would have to be a commercial kitchen and meet stringent code requirements.

Proposed solutions

The county agreed that the wooden box shelters could be temporarily used if they were rewired and painted to cover the crank case oil. The box shelters could be moved against the dairy barn to create, in effect, one building. The county agreed to call this a single-family building, and as such, a commercial kitchen would not be needed.

There also was discussion of a long-term solution that would involve eventually eliminating the sheds and issuing a permit, waiving fees to construct another building that would again be considered a single-family unit housing between 15 and 20 persons.

We had meetings with De Vaul to try to get agreement to the short-term and long-term proposed solutions by using the “single-family” facility approach. De Vaul was reluctant at almost every turn. He absolutely refused to move any of the existing shelter sheds.

He did agree that new sheds could be built abutting the milk barn and the existing sheds should be properly wired and brought up to code, but he wanted the existing sheds to remain where they sit. He saw these sheds as a permanent, long-term solution.

Cleanup sought

Since we were at loggerheads, we suggested to De Vaul that we could show good faith by cleaning up some of the junk vehicles, dilapidated RVs and mobile homes on the property. This detritus makes the property look like a junk yard and really has little or nothing to do with the problem of housing the homeless. It also violates state and county land use rules and may constitute a nuisance.

When we walked the property with De Vaul, we found that he was absolutely unwilling to remove any of the junk vehicles.

He claimed each was essential to the operation of his agricultural property. It was obvious to us that most of these vehicles were of doubtful value for anything.

To make a long story short, most of us came to the conclusion that we were wasting our time trying to convince De Vaul to solve his problems. It became obvious to me and others that he does not want a reasonable solution to his problems and he rather enjoys his ongoing fight with the county and its attendant celebrity.

The sad part of all of this is that the unfortunate people who seek shelter at Sunny Acres are caught in the middle.

The county cannot countenance a shelter that is unsafe. It cannot countenance the blatant disregard for its health and safety rules, no matter how good the cause.

While De Vaul does offer shelter, he offers precious little else to his homeless population. He does not have appropriate case workers to work with residents to try to get them out of homelessness and into work and permanent shelter.

While De Vaul’s perpwalk and one night in jail garnered him a lot of publicity and perhaps sympathy and his appearances on national television may be satisfying for him, residents of Sunny Acres still must be safely sheltered.

This continuing stubborn fight that De Vaul conducts with county officials, who are only doing their job, helps no one.

The kernel of a good idea that De Vaul had 10 years ago is in danger of being completely destroyed by his intransigence.

Unfortunately, because there is so much public sympathy for the cause of the homeless, De Vaul comes off as a martyr, and the county is painted as heartless and uncaring.

In our experience, neither is true! We sincerely hope that someone has better luck dealing with De Vaul.

The one good thing that comes out of the saga is that the plight of the homeless in San Luis Obispo County has risen in the public consciousness.

De Vaul points out that many of the homeless people with mental challenges, physical disabilities, substance-abuse issues and felony records are often not served by existing programs.

We hope this more acute public awareness will make it easier to seek informed solutions.

San Luis Obispo attorney James M. Duenow serves on the advisory board to the Maxine Lewis Shelter and the countywide Homeless Services Oversight Committee.