Homemade Homeless Shelter

The New York Times has a video produced by Sean Patrick Farrell about a man in California who is using his ranch as a special homeless shelter and rehab center. The difficulties he has encountered and the laws he has chosen to ignore to make this work. Thanks Jeff for letting me know about this video.

Dan de Vaul has taken in dozens of homeless people by building ramshackle, illegal housing on his ranch in San Luis Obispo, Calif. Some see him as a good Samaritan, but others consider the ranch to be a dangerous eyesore. Watch the “Homemade Homeless Shelter video here.”

Photos from video by Sean Patrick Farrell

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Bill - January 12, 2010 Reply

I guess some would rather see the government provide all assistance rather than someone else try to help out. It sounds like the county will never cooperate with Dan now, with too much bad blood between them.

Matt - January 12, 2010 Reply

He can fight this “in perpetuam”

When the county condems a structure, replace it with a trailer, van, rv, etc…When the county has a problem with vehicles…apply for a Dealer’s License, etc…

…the point is the man is SUCCESSFUL at helping people more so than the government. He can find all sorts of ways to protest this. It is his land, NO ONE can force him to not have “friends” over to stay and visit!

Michael O'Leary - January 12, 2010 Reply

It’s a shame to see his neighbors deride his efforts without attempting to improve on his approach. I love the woman complaining – why not just come out and say:

“He’s not zoned to help people!”

I hope that they come up with a work-out for the owner and the people that rely on him. Given the current economic conditions does that local government really want these people coming to them for assistance?

It seems to me that a 24 month schedule to move the folks off of the farm and onto some county owned land, along with some funds to start improving the property and build a skills center would be in order.

Just my $.02

-billS - January 12, 2010 Reply

interesting this is called a homeless shelter but the video states he charges $300 a month rent. if they can’t afford that they fix his tractors and help maintain and clean up the place. i didn’t think shelters charged rent!?! sadly the place looks like a junk yard, far from the eco-friendly idea of tiny house living. all tiny house folks have to deal with zoning issues and that is how it developed, to build sustainable housing inside the law (thus the standard under 100 square foot needs no permit) but his property is not zoned for multi-family and that is a problem. i personally feel this guy is profiting from this. i think i see at least 10 shelters there and at $300 a month he is taking in $3K a month and getting free labor to clean up the place. i may be wrong but that is my sense.

    Michael O'Leary - January 12, 2010 Reply

    I hardly think you can call $300 “rent” when it looks like he feeds and houses all these people for that much. No offense is intended here, but life isn’t “neat and tidy” and nothing is as idyllic in practice as it is in theory.

    Small house living isn’t going to evolve into the realization of a utopia, nor is it going to necessarily by adopted exclusively by the granola crowd, building with low emission products and recycled insulation.

    If more people start embracing the concept you can expect to see a lot more scenarios like this one. At my country home I see quite a few working farms that won’t ever grace the cover of Southern Living. Tractors break and need repair. Fences go down and aren’t fixed until needed or until someone finds the money to do so.

    To me it sounds like this guy is doing a whole lot with very little. In my opinion that is the embodiment of the ideal we all buy into when we talk about small house living. It’s not pretty, but it’s real.

      -billS - January 12, 2010 Reply

      I’m just quoting the video where he says he charges $300 “RENT” So no offence taken. I wonder what everyone thinks about the piles of junk, trash and non-running vehicles leaking God knows what into the ground. Watch it again and the place looks like a dump. Easy to praise his efforts when he is not your neighbor. Would you want to live next to that junk yard?

        Michael O'Leary - January 12, 2010 Reply

        No – I would not be happy with that as my neighboring property, but that’s not my call. If I had the choice between a flower farm and a working ranch with homeless recovering addicts running it I would go for the flower farm.

        Since that isn’t the option, and these people need someplace to go, opposition to providing them housing here sounds a lot like NIMBY. Will you go quietly when the guy in the McMansion voices opposition to the tiny house you would like to build one day? This guy is on 70+ acres, I don’t think we’re dealing with 30′ set-backs here :-). A review on Google Earth shows the property is near a neat and tidy subdivision (where the opponents live) – I gotta bet that the farm got there first.

        Are there legitimate issues with his handling of the situation? Absolutely. The city has liability concerns with the “dormitory” he built (solution would be to get it up to code and sign off on it) and no question the aesthetic of the property could be improved (although pretty isn’t the government’s job). I hope no one would deny that the owner could be a better neighbor – I also hope that everyone can agree that the ultimate goal should be to help facilitate the efforts of someone who is trying to do good things for people in need.

        As far as being easy to lay praise… you’re right, not because he isn’t my neighbor, but because I learned to accept people for who they are and what they do (I didn’t say I learned to like it, just accept it). Not everyone is going to fit my definition of normal, but that doesn’t make it my responsibility to force them into conformity. The owner needs to make an effort to live by society’s laws but at the same time the community (including the local government) should be working to ensure his success.

          scott - January 12, 2010 Reply

          Hey atleast the guy is trying ! If he helps one person he did better then the most of us. Help him don’t beat him down. And the hell with zoning is we cant help others,what have we as people become anyways!!! This guy is awasome in my book.

          -billS - January 12, 2010 Reply

          thanks to this story i think this guy is going to be in trouble with local law enforcement and the IRS. he admits he is going against zoning and he admits he is charging $300 a month rent. i would put that in the “unreported income” column. michael you said you would not be happy if this guy were your neighbor and the comment is not your call. you’re right, it’s his neighbors call and they say they don’t like it either. i’m trying to give the guy credit but he is charging rent so he’s not that big of a humanitarian. and how do the residents earn/obtain money? the story says they sell stuff. is the state getting the appropriate sales tax? sounds like they are a considerable distance from town so do we have homeless without insurance driving or are they on foot? The guy admits he is doing this illegally and make no mention of trying to change the zoning. would everyone’s opinion be the same if instead of white homeless he was exploiting cheap labor out of blacks, hispanics or special needs folks. he is a profiteer not a humanitarian. but that’s my opinion.

      James - November 26, 2011 Reply

      So here we are again. Everyone screams not in my backyard. Not with my tax dollars. What is wrong with this county? Here’s someone who is trying to be part of the solution and here’s a bunch of people saying they would want to be part of the problem. If this guys ranch was next to my back yard I would applaud him not make more problems for him. He’s not doing it on the tax payers dime so they county should take a flying leap. What do you want to do with the homeless? shoot them all and throw them in a ditch? The small house movement and people like Dan are the sulution.

Greg - January 12, 2010 Reply

This man has the compassion to help his fellow
man, very inspiring and commend him for his efferts.
For the richest country in the world, why do we have so many homeless and its something our elected officials won’t answer. They caused
this and its only going to get worse as time goes
We all need to help each other, including his neighbors. But then again, I guess A**holes
never help anyone but themselves.

    -billS - January 13, 2010 Reply

    Gee Greg, name calling? Really!

    MJ – I’m not “throwing around the *charging rent* bit” I’m just commenting on the story as reported. Great organization Habitat for Humanity” Difference is they operate inside the law and operates as a not-for-profit and adheres to all the tax reporting laws required. This guy does not. By the brief bio of this guys life it would appear he has had a problem with authority for a very long time. And he is still today.

    We have a homeless problem in my area too. It seems every month we hear a story of someone dying of exposure or fire caused by an improper heating device. Very sad.

    And to let you know, I have personally bought food and other items and delivered to the folks under the rail road bridges in my city. I volunteer at a family homeless shelter preparing and serving food. Food that I paid for.

      abner littleon - January 13, 2012 Reply

      I agree that there are problems with the situation.
      I charge rent is probably his way of trying to beat the vagrant rule, he doesn’t try to make money but let’s them work to pay the rent to feel like someone. as for the ‘I carry food to them,work in a shelter,serve food I bought(your heart’s in the right place but your brain needs a little education), give em a fish so they can eat or better teach em to fish so they can eat and have some self pride. been there done that…all 3 sides. I fish now

billdakelski - January 12, 2010 Reply

If guys like this were running our country instead of lawyers, we would have a lot less problems.

Brad - January 12, 2010 Reply

I’m going to take a wild guess here and say that I doubt he collects many $300 rents. I’m guessing that’s a false option: “Work, or pay money.” So guess what, they work. Which is outstanding therapy, and just the way it should be done. I don’t think I have the stomach for what he does, and admire the heck out of him, mess and all. Oddly, I just today watched a news story here in Houston where a local homeless shelter is being sued for “zoning violations” in a deliberate effort to close it down. Shame on them. “Inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren…”

MJ - January 13, 2010 Reply

I agree, Brad. Those who are throwing around the *charging rent* bit do not know much about dealing with the down and out…it is exactly what Habitat for Humanity does, no one gets a free ride and self respect is re-learned or maybe learned for the first time. And wow, it’s not Tiny House(s) in a Landscape, which we all love and hey, won’t you be my neighbor…but unfortunately, there is another side of life. Why don’t his protesting neighbors get in there and help clean up the junk they dislike? Noooo…have the govt. do it for them too.

Life is short, what is going to be on your ledger at the end? ‘Complained about un-pretty in my world’ or ‘Helped a little, because I’ve got more’

Arlos - January 13, 2010 Reply

Considering the growth of boutique ranches and whinery’s (pun intended) in San Louis Obispbo co, The owner could go a long way to at least clean what can be cleaned, landscape to hide what can’t. conversely, SLO co can meet him half way, not by lowering standards to meet circumstances but match assistance to help him.
When you move to the country, especially in this economy, don’t expect your neighbor to live as if architectural digest is going to show up st any minute to photograph a cover spread, maybe Ransacked Monthly.
SLO co is by and large, conservative cow country with most having moved there looking for an Maxfield Parish meets Green Acres sort of lifestyle bringing with them, including everything they left behind, city services and values that just do not work in the rural environment. the former city council woman with her green lawns is a small example of clueless suburban escapee’s are a chicken and egg dilemma like those that move next to an airport and complain about the noise..
All things considered, I give him two thumbs up for doing what others only talk about to help. In some ways it shows government doesn’t like to exhibit the under belly of it’s own failings.
Maybe an on the ground small house spread is in order? I live three hours north of him and have wanted to get down there and offer some help and oddly enough will be in SLO this next Monday…

Heather - January 13, 2010 Reply

This is a tough one for sure. On one hand, this fellow (from what we saw) seems to be doing great work. I did wonder where he gets the money to feed the people, etc. and see that the small rent would help. I doubt as well many of them are able to pay rent. On the other hand, though the neighbor was a pain and you could tell she worked for the county or something previously, having been in this situation as well, I get where she is coming from.

We lived in a rural community next to a neighbor (great people) who gradually built up a junk yard of about 5 acres. That’s huge by the way when one acre is 210′ x 210′. We were very gracious to him for years and years, even wrote letters to the county on his behalf saying he was a good neighbor in other ways, etc. In the end, when we wanted to move and sell our home (which was very well kept with flowers, etc.) it hurt us in that people would do a drive by (having to go by his place first, 1/2 mile away) and then leave. We asked him kindly to tidy it up a bit but he was so far gone (they call it hoarding now) that he did not bother. After all of the help we had given him (probably shouldn’t have been so lenient) it was a real disappointment. I guess they weren’t good neighbors after all.

We have to be respectful of those around us, regardless of whether we are trying to save the planet or not.

There is a way to help the homeless as well as keep a property pleasing to the eye. Work could entail landscaping, building fences for screening, keeping the place tidy, etc. A little paint goes a long way. However, some can figure this out and some can’t. Neighbors can help clean up the mess but this guy looks like he would not let them on his property. So, maybe it’s just not that easy a solution.

As for the zoning, that’s another problem altogether.

    -billS - January 13, 2010 Reply

    All great points Heather, the thing is this is more than a nice guy lending a helping hand to a couple of people. And the landscaping plan you mention is typically required for start-up businesses that require a zoning change. This guy is running a homeless shelter or semi-primitive camp ground but has done none of the preliminary worked required. And by the sounds of it, he has made no effort to do so. If he were actively trying to change the zoning to allow this it would have been mentioned in the story. So he is now at odds with the county, state, his neighbors and the IRS. The county due to zoning issues, the state for sales tax on the goods sold, his neighbors for the eyesore and the IRS for the income he takes in rent.

      Dawn - January 30, 2010 Reply

      Who says he’s not reporting the rent income on his taxes? The IRS probably couldn’t care less whether his land is zoned for multi-home residential use… that’s the zoning commission’s problem.

      And it seems as though they’re fighting him without even looking at the benefits he’s providing. I don’t know about other areas but where I live, the zoning of your neighborhood isn’t really modifiable. Agricultural land would have to go through a lot to get re-certified, and if he did that he might even have to parcel it up to keep his farmhouse and several acres for the cows – or get rid of the cows, chickens, etc because they’re not allowed on residential land.

      Here’s a question: When ranching first started out in the West, before zoning commissions, there were often bunkhouses full of farmhands and no one cared. Slaves were kept on plantations in “multi-family housing”. Do zoning commissions have such a big stick up their noses that they can’t admit that agricultural land use could include housing for agricultural workers? Or is it just because he’s asking for rent/work in return for the housing? What DO you zone a working ranch with a bunkhouse these days?

Lucas - January 13, 2010 Reply

Behind the rosy facade, lies reality. The neatly trimmed lawn, color-coordinated taupe paint scheme and freshly washed cars tell only part of the story. Inside a man hits his wife, a child huffs compressed air, a mother depends on pain pills, the credit cards go unpaid again. They look like you and I. Good neighbors. Sure are glad we moved to this neighborhood. Oh no did you see that guy!? He looks different. His lawn isn’t trimmed. Did you see all those dirty people living there? Time to get him out of here, he’s ruining the image of our neighborhood. My property values are going down. Who do we call? Where’s that number to call and complain?

Here’s a little dirty secret about homeless people: they CANT get a job like you and I! Yeah, they don’t have a phone, address, ID sometimes, clean clothes, a shower. How does someone go about applying for jobs without a basic level of support? Looks like this guy might be providing just that. There’s no justifiable reason that anyone goes to bed in this country without food, shelter, and healthcare. Greed’s a powerful drug. If you want to get a closer look at homelessness check out this guy’s interviews w/ the homeless in Portland, OR.


    -billS - January 13, 2010 Reply

    Lucas, I don’t quite understand where you are going with your first paragraph but I agree things are not always as they appear. As for the second paragraph I agree these people do not have the immediate means you mentioned. But truth be told here in Iowa it takes 30 days to get into the system to start receiving benefits. One of the “thirty-plus” people staying their said he had been there 5 months. I am not familiar with how everything works in California. The article also states he built an illegal dormitory that was forced closed as were the numerous huts on his property. So where are the 30-plus people staying now? I am all for helping those in need and as states have done so personally on several occasions. The thing is, this guy has had a problem with authority for most of his life and his apparent unwillingness to cooperate with ANY of the governing agencies or his neighbors only makes his cause more difficult. His property looks like a junk yard, he has 30-plus people living there yet the junk remains. Just what is the work he is having them do? Apparently not cleanup. And no mention of him working with the city towards a peaceful solution. The money he spent to build the dorm and huts could have been used to hire a lawyer to do this all proper. He appears to be a hoarder the type we see on reality tv shows. Broken down semi, piles of broken storm windows, all sorts of other junk. No excuse to not have that place looking like a park with the exploited labor force of 30-plus.

      gmh - January 13, 2010 Reply

      billS, I think you are right, but it goes beyond the cosmetics of a yard or piece of property… I see some of those “ramshackle” houses as a safety risk. Our building codes don’t exist just to frustrate people. They exist because fires, floods, hurricanes, and earthquakes also exist. I hope Dan used good building practices.

        -billS - January 13, 2010 Reply

        exactly gmh, he built the 3 level dorm and the huts “illegally” without a building plan, inspections and such, no one will insure it and God forbid it catch fire or something structural fail. I know we didn’t see all 4 sides but i didn’t see a fire escape either. something that size would require fire suppression, emergency lighting and many many more things to make is “safe”

          Anne - January 14, 2010 Reply

          Agreed. While this sounds a good idea in theory, the way he has implimented it will win him few converts… particularly because the situation smacks of a self serving condition. Considering the physical appearance and condition of his ‘haven’, I for one would need a lot more information on the situation before letting the fact that he fed it to the media sway my trust in it. The same arguements were made by those trying to justify slavery.

Matt - January 13, 2010 Reply

Reminds me of when George Carlin spoke about people wanting more prisons….but Not In My Back Yard!


Gen - January 17, 2010 Reply

I being unemployed seemingly forever,and finally completly out of savings,will probebly lose my house to taxes(the govt.) (its completly payed for)
hope there is someone there like him so I dont have to beg from the very people that are killing me with their greed.

    -billS - January 17, 2010 Reply

    well that’s just silly to lose your house for taxes when it’s paid for. you must not have made a tax payment in more than a year and a half to get to this point. if you situation is as you say, there are NUMEROUS options available to you. go to any bank and inquire about a reverse mortgage. you can live off the equity in your home for quite a while. you can offset that with ANY minimum wage job and be comfortable for years. your situation has nothing to do with others greed.

Simple Living News Update - January 18, 2010 Reply

[…] Homemade Homeless Shelter […]

Donna Pagan - September 9, 2010 Reply

I am a staff member at a homeless shelter. and we have a few homeless people who live at the shelter and work there but we dont charge them to live there it works out very wellwhich is 10.00 a day to do different jobs like wash dishes and wash clothers there bedding for the clients. its not a lot of money but they save it to move on. it works. it would be great to have tiny homess here for the homeless for them to rent to live there

Ironboots - April 5, 2011 Reply

It takes money to operate any homeless shelter. If the shelter doesn’t charge a dime, the shelter has volunteers and many people donate canned food, etc. This man has to charge something or else get help from other people – his neighbors?

Running Off the Homeless - December 18, 2011 Reply

[…] Homemade Homeless Shelter The New York Times has a video produced by Sean Patrick Farrell about a man in California who is using his ranch as a special homeless shelter and rehab center. The difficulties he has encountered and the laws he has chosen to ignore to make this work. Thanks Jeff for letting me know about this video. […]

Homemade shelter | Bestdamnawards - July 11, 2012 Reply

[…] Homemade Homeless ShelterJan 12, 2010 … Dan de Vaul has taken in dozens of homeless people by building ramshackle, illegal housing on his ranch in San Luis Obispo, Calif. […]

tmsky - June 20, 2017 Reply

many thanks

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