Judie Najarian cried while talking with me. She cried from exhaustion, she cried from frustration and she cried from distress. A coworker had just told her another “member of the family” had left the farm.
Najarian works at Sunny Acres, a nonprofit focused on providing addiction recovery and shelter for the most vulnerable individuals. It serves as a refuge for those who are addicted to drugs and alcohol, the homeless and people dying slowly from their destructive habits. Not welcome in most other places in the county, these people turn to the 72 acres of land focused on re-establishing lives and providing support and shelter during the difficult journey.
If you ever drive down Los Osos Valley Road, you’ll see Sunny Acres. In between a Jewish synagogue and a housing development, it is an environment conducive to recovery. The rules there are simple: you must be over 18, willing to work and, most importantly, motivated to kick your addiction and reintroduce yourself to society.
As we talked, Najarian told me that the founder and owner of Sunny Acres, Dan DeVaul is sick. “Pneumonia” she said, shaking her head, as tears welled up over the creases of her eyes squinting in the sun.
He is tired, just like the others, but his illness is taking a toll. I met him briefly and observed his solemn figure, emotionally beaten from the stress of fighting with local officials over his organization.
Conflict has been a constant since the ranch’s inception, but until recently, the county’s actions never resorted to shutting down the facility. Officials recently came on to the property and boarded up a number of buildings, specifically a barn that housed more than 20 residents, because it violated of county codes. Now residents are forced to resort to living in a makeshift tent city using tents, portable toilets and a few barbecues.
A seemingly endless list of other smaller attacks plague the ranch; notably, the handful of sex offenders seeking housing on the property and the eyesore the facility causes for surrounding neighborhoods could ultimately shut the ranch down for good.
If the ranch shuts down for good, where will the residents of the facility go? More appropriately, without Sunny Acres, what will future individuals suffering from addiction and homelessness do?
Within San Luis Obispo County, there is no substitute for the services Sunny Acres offers. The program keeps people off the streets and away from the habits that put them there in the first place. Without it, residents will resort to the environments they were trying to avoid and many will reintroduce addiction into their lives.
Sadly, the process has already begun. Steven Jones, an administrator at the ranch, said the program has had contact with a few individuals forced to leave the property after the most recent conflict began.
“We’ve heard from a few of them. Many are homeless again,” he said.
Instead of putting the homeless back on the streets and destroying a program that has changed the lives of countless addicts, the County should support Sunny Acres, providing to it the means to create a livable facility. After all, it is a county’s duty to support its residents, especially those on the brink of self-destruction.
According to Najarian, the ranch doesn’t use any taxpayer dollars to run its program. The self-sustaining addiction recovery center simply relies on the small rent payments of residents and its different sales activities (wine barrel making, a recycling program, etc.) as income to provide the resources necessary to run the program.
With a little monetary aid, Sunny Acres will finally have the ability to produce an environment reflecting city standards and the local community will no longer place such a negative stigma on the progress made on the ranch.
I suggest county officials visit the ranch, not to put up signs and bar windows and doors, but to talk to its residents. The people are kind, welcoming and have an urge to dispel all the rumors that perpetuate from their small piece of home in the county. Once there, officials will find that what DeVaul and his friends are doing is truly a gift to the community.
Yes, Sunny Acres must abide by the law and clean up the ranch but how can this be done without local support?
One resident I talked to, who wouldn’t provide his name, simply stated, “Sunny Acres saved my life. I don’t want to see it go.”
Taylor Moore is a journalism senior and a Mustang Daily current events columnist.