Southern California -- this just in

« Previous Post | L.A. NOW Home | Next Post »

San Luis Obispo rancher who housed homeless is sentenced to jail for safety code violations


A San Luis Obispo rancher who for years has illegally housed homeless people was ordered today to serve 90 days in jail.

A defiant Dan de Vaul stretched out his arms and let deputies place handcuffs on him before being led out of the San Luis Obispo courtroom. The 66-year-old defendant was offered probation after a jury convicted him in September of two misdemeanor violations of building and safety codes at his Sunny Acres ranch.

But De Vaul refused the terms of his probation because he said it would mean he could no longer provide shelter for about 30 people who reside in his sober-living facility. For eight years, he’s operated the program on his 72-acre ranch, housing clients in mobile homes, tents, garden sheds and an aging Victorian home.

For a time, he also housed people in a three-story stucco barracks until it was shut down last year.

“The first condition of probation is obey all laws,” De Vaul said before the hearing, which was attended by about 30 of his supporters. “I’m proud to go to jail for housing the homeless.”

Superior Court Judge John Trice said San Luis Obispo officials have repeatedly offered to help De Vaul bring his property up to code. But De Vaul has declined all attempts at help, Trice said.

“Such conduct can only be viewed as irresponsible and arrogant,” the judge said before sentencing him to jail.

De Vaul was also ordered to pay a $1,000 fine.

-- Catherine Saillant in San Luis Obispo

Photo: San Luis Obispo deputy sheriff Noah Martin puts the handcuffs on Dan De Vaul after De Vaul was sentenced to 90 days in jail. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times



Story: A rehab center is praised -- and vilified

Photos: Needed haven or unsafe eyesore?

Comments () | Archives (103)

...The few "all-bad" and many "all-good" comments are indicative of our cultural bent towards all-or-nothing, black-and-white thinking. I broken bread with the guy. He's like all of us: =some= (morally) "good" and =some= (legally) "bad."
...Is the place an eyesore from the road with out-of-code electrical wiring? Yup. Is the place solving a problem for the rest of the residents in the SLO / LO area? Yup.
...Dan's view is that Sunny Acres =works= the way it =is= to put a platform under people who need one and that changing the place to suit the values of people with "great(er) expectations" does injury to what works there.
...Some of Sunny Acres residents have been able to get enough traction to move on into productive lives; others may not be able to do so because of their physical and mental limitations. But they grow a lot of their own food right there on the property and do pretty well at getting along with each other.
...Which is more than I can say for much of the rest of the world.

There are two kinds of building code provisions (yes, I'm a professional in the field.)

There are provisions that are really necessary for safety--though it would be a little difficult to imagine anything less safe for these people than having no home at all.

Then there are provisions that are desirable, or that protect one or another interest in construction or building materials industries. These are definitely MUCH less important than providing housing for homeless people.

I'd be very interested to know exactly what the violations were.

So the the government sends a man to jail for supposed housing code violations, when the State cannot operate its prison system without violating the law.

The San Luis Obispo County is completely indifferent to the housing code save for an insidious excuse to harass the homeless who found a guy willing to take them out of harm's way.


Absolutely outrageous. The government should have found a way to work this out. You have to wonder just what kind of "help" was offered if a person with the compassion and common sense to care for this many homeless people (apparently successfully) refused it. I've seen a lot of local governments' ideas of "help" in various places and some of them are in fact no help at all while others are just ridiculous. That could well be the case here.

This guy did what I think Jesus or St. Paul would do, and like the latter, he's going to prison for it. That's the only crime here.

Absolutely outrageous. The government should have found a way to work this out. You have to wonder just what kind of "help" was offered if a person with the compassion and common sense to care for this many homeless people (apparently successfully) refused it. I've seen a lot of local governments' ideas of "help" in various places and some of them are in fact no help at all while others are just ridiculous. That could well be the case here.

This guy did what I think Jesus or St. Paul would do, and like the latter, he's going to prison for it. That's the only crime here.

re: Olivia"Does the church, or other charitable organizations who help the needy break the laws they are subject to?"

Yes olivia the church does break the law through discrimination, not paying taxes, and political advocacy.

As for your claim that him taking ten bucks a day to house and feed people is somehow a money making venture - I'd suggest you try it. If it were so lucrative we'd see a lot more of it wouldn't we?

Example: A man has 72 acres, a developer wants to build on those acres, the developer goes to his cronies on the board of supervisors who then have code enforcement begin harassing the man using ordinances such as the excessive outside storage one, the supervisors decide to do an abatement, (THE HELP OFFERED) at the cost of 150 dollars per hour, per person on the job, they then liene the property in liue of payment, then sell it to the developer at a lien sale at a much reduced price. They are called nuisance laws and excessive outside storage is whatever code enforcement decides it to be. I know because they are doing the same thing to me, and as fast as I fix the problem they decide that something else is excessive, like having a travel trailer on my 2 acres that is on a single lane deadend dirt road.
So don't ever think these thieves are just public minded citizens trying to protect the public, I've been in construction for over 40 years and know exactly how these jerks work.

I'm sure the "help" came with a load of unwanted bureaucracy going forward.

Still, he could have gotten out of hand with his place, story reminds me of "Hoarders".

I have spent the past several months volunteering and coordinating aspects of the Sunny Acres program and would like to share what I have become aware of by being on site and having lengthy discussion 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, the opportunity to attend AA and NA meetings held weekly on site, and the opportunity to rehabilitate at a pace that works for each on an individual basis. Rehabilitation is accomplished in large part by working on the ranch doing such things as farm work, dealing with the 40 head of cattle, repairing and maintaining farm equipment, re-building classic cars, converting wine barrels into water barrels and more.

All of these jobs provide hands on rehabilitation that helps those who are getting sober to stay sober as well as build self-esteem. Each resident is treated as an individual and their strengths and weaknesses taken into consideration upon admission. It operates like a large family with the residents carrying each other with their own individual strengths. Dignity is restored and respect for one another is modeled there.

In 9 years of operation the program has never seen a major incident of injury to any of it's 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 should encourage SLO County officials to forgive many of the alleged violations 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 that 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 injustices that occur in terms of government interaction with private land-owners who sometimes choose to provide much needed services such as housing the formerly homeless.

This character is just turning San Luis Obispo into a shanty town, he should go to jail...

This character is just turning San Luis Obispo into a shanty town, he should go to jail...

viva de vaul. down with "laws" of this kind, and on a ranch? how idiotic.

25.6.45 King James "Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say
unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me".

I live in a mid-west community of less than 9,000 people. If this man were creating this "eyesore" in an effort to help his fellow man in this town, there would be an outpouring of monetary donations, material donations, food, furnishing, and volunteer labor to help clean it up, and build it up to code. Picture coffee cans on store counter tops, church quilt raffles, bake sales, and penny drives. There would be no griping back and forth whether or not he is right or wrong, and saying, “Someone should do something,” they would just do whatever they could, whenever and however they could do it. The man does not have the monetary resources to bring the housing up to code, okay. Has anyone “brought the coffee and donuts,” shaken his hand and asked why he won’t accept this wonderful, miraculous “help” from the authorities, instead of cultivating suspicion and guessing at his intentions? Why doesn't his grouchy neighbor quit griping and help? This is America. Don’t pass the buck. . .saddle up and get the job done.

There really are a lot of other issues here. For example, one of his 'guests' murdered another homeless person a couple of years ago, left her in the creek and continued living with DuVaul another two years until he was caught by his DNA.

I live in SLO and feel torn about DuVaul. On one hand YES, he's helping homeless addicts. And I think he really is, according to many interviews with the people who live there. And I agree with other posters here that they are better off in ramshackle housing than living in a creek (where they leave all kinds of waste that is harmful to the environment) or next to a freeway. We have one homeless shelter here, and it's not enough, especially these days with people losing their homes, entire families falling out the bottom.

On the other hand, NO, he's not the shining example of goodness that i could wholeheartedly support. The place is a junkpile. Just literally littered with tons of junk. And his place is right on the edge of town and right on the main street going through that area. A friend of mine is DuVaul's neighbor, follows the situation closely, and is completely disgusted with him.

Many other problems, not addressed in this article:
- DeVaul had code enforcement problems when he was a tenant on this land, which was at that time farmed intensively.
- He was convicted of an infraction, for which he chose to go to jail rather than fix the code violations, which are many. The original violations were for junk, cars and illegal grading. He was not prosecuted for operating a homeless shelter.
- He also charges rent, which makes him somewhat of a slumlord. They had a fire out there earlier this year, no one hurt, caused by mickey mouse electrical. Most of these people have some kind of government subsidy - part of what DuVaul does is set people up with benefits.

I'm not defending the prosecutors though. They blew it as far as handling this situation in a way that would get the place up to code without turning the guy into a martyr. I with they would have found a way to get help for DuVaul and the people who live there, rather than coming down with a hammer over and over. They sent out a swat team kind of thing earlier this year! Just complete overkill. So i understand why DuVaul is fighting back.

It's a messy situation. No one is Jesus and no one is the devil. Just something that wasn't well planned or executed.

I'm homeless. I travel around alot, and am currently in San Francisco.

I wish there was someone here that would go out of thier way to help out the poor like this Dan guy. I went to a church just yesterday asking for something to eat, and got turned away.

This guy housed the houseless and fed the hungry. What's wrong with that? Code violations? Well then, what were they? The article says there were code violations, but doesn't state which ones (if there were even any).

Re: For a time, he also housed people in a three-story stucco barracks until it was shut down last year.

Who shut it down?

Could it be a nanny state that knows what's best for us?

Shocking how so many of the comments here are solely motivated by emotion and preconceived notions. Read the article they link to, people, the homeless don't stay for free: http://articles.latimes.com/2009/may/17/local/me-rancher17

People who insist on blaming the government even though they don't know what assistance was offered: Did you ever stop and think maybe they pointed out how this man could get set up as a legitimate non-profit facility? People set up privately run board-and-care facilities all the time, he's not exactly breaking new ground.

People who insist De Vaul is blameless: Plenty of people have commented on the safety of what he was doing, what if there had been a fire? If we allow large groups of people to be housed together, we make sure there are safety precautions in place. If something had happened, you know the same people blaming the state here would be blaming them there for NOT doing something!

Finally, people who insist on blaming the courts/law enforcement: Have you stopped to think that they're supposed to enforce the law, not make arbitrary decisions about to whom and why it should apply? What an unpredictable society we'd have if every police officer and judge depart from assessing situations by the law and started doing so by their own opinion.

If you want something done, write your representatives. They make the laws, our police and courts just carry them out. Don't expect them to aid De Vaul in his illegal, if well-intentioned ventures.


Zach (and others of this ignorant mindset),
It is your kind of thinking that keeps people "housed" and dying in bushes.

After 30+ yrs in the construction buisness i can tell you there are very few buildings that dont violate at least one or 2 building codes. since the violations where not listed i am assuming they were probably minor in nature and probably had more to do with convienence than danger to the occupant's.This man went out of his way to help others. It is NO ONE'S buisness what he does with he property as long as he is not hurting any one.A simple stay at your own risk sign or warning is sufficient.Having spent some time in San Luis Obispo i would be willing to bet this is more about some people who feel that their county is to good to house a few poor people than it is about safety. If the county is so concerned about the homeless people's safety why are they not stepping up and providing a safer place? this judge should be removed and the D.A. disbarred or bettr yet they should have to house a few of these people their selve's for a few month's .

Get government out of our lives!

So why is it OK for the Judge to lie from the bench?

I doubt the building department truly offered HELP, I am sure they offered to tell him how to squander tons of money meeting code and weren't about to show up and provide free labor to do the necessary work.

HELP would be showing up as free construction labor and chipping in for the building materials and supplies.

Sounds like the result of a vendetta by a politically connected (and probably rich) neighbor against the man who spoiled the lovely country views she liked.


The guy charged his clients $300/month with meals included. Hardly a for-profit institution. He did something that actually turned around the lives of some really messed-up people. Leave the man alone.

"Ignorant," Jennifer? I expect you insult me because we have different views on this story, since your rude comment showed no flaw in my facts or logic. No, I don't think that just because there are homeless, anyone should be able to offer them any kind of reduced-cost, substandard housing. Most times when people do that, we call them slumlords and condemn them for taking advantage, but this guy has a mission statement so you call him a hero.

Well, hero or villain, the combination of exposed wiring (among the code violations in recent reports) and crowded living has often led to fire, and just because de Vaul delivered those people from a frying pan doesn't make me feel better about that.

« | 1 2 3 4 5 | »


Recommended on Facebook


In Case You Missed It...


About L.A. Now
L.A. Now is the Los Angeles Times’ breaking news section for Southern California. It is produced by more than 80 reporters and editors in The Times’ Metro section, reporting from the paper’s downtown Los Angeles headquarters as well as bureaus in Costa Mesa, Long Beach, San Diego, San Francisco, Sacramento, Riverside, Ventura and West Los Angeles.
Have a story tip for L.A. Now?
Please send to newstips@latimes.com
Can I call someone with news?
Yes. The city desk number is (213) 237-7847.


Get Alerts on Your Mobile Phone

Sign me up for the following lists: