After decades of inaction, Orange County officials in recent years have finally begun to make progress on helping homeless people find a safe place to sleep for a night — the shelter carved out of an abandoned bus terminal in Santa Ana and a permanent shelter planned for Anaheim are evidence of that.
But they still are a long way from reaching the next level, which goes beyond just giving people a hot meal and a cot, of getting them on a path toward stability and greater self-sufficiency.
Homeless advocates say re-purposing a 114-acre property nestled between a golf course and a condo development in Costa Mesa could provide an important step in that direction.
Currently, the property is home to the Fairview Developmental Center, a residential facility that now houses 194 developmentally disabled adults, some who require around-the-clock care.
But the state, which plans to close all but two of its developmental centers statewide by 2021, could end up using it for other purposes or selling it off to a private party.
The advocates want to keep that from happening and have their own vision for the property: a mental health center where people experiencing a crisis can receive follow-up care and be housed for a temporary period.
“If we don’t say something, the state will do as it pleases with Fairview,” said Matt Holzmann, chair of the Orange County chapter of the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI-OC) and one of the main advocates proposing the mental health center.
Holzmann said the county has an opportunity with the property to add much-needed mental health beds and add a crucial link in its chain of services for the homeless, a place where people can not only be treated for mental health crises but be monitored for up to 30 days afterward, either as residents or in an outpatient program.
State Sen. John Moorlach (R-Irvine), who pushed for mental health legislation as an Orange County supervisor, has taken the first step to plant a flag on the Fairview property, introducing a bill last month that would ask the state legislature to clarify its intent with the property.
The bill, Senate Bill 59, does not advocate for any specific use of the property, although the language of the bill – which is so far vague and only one sentence long – is likely to be added to over the next few weeks.
“Our office believes that a portion of the land should continue to be a public good,” Moorlach said in an emailed statement. “It should be the role of the community; including Costa Mesa, the County of Orange and regional stakeholders to determine what the best use of the site will be.”
A Mental Health Crisis
Mental health care is uncoordinated and inadequate in most places, but things are particularly bad in Orange County.
The California Hospital Association recommends that a county have 50 mental health beds per 100,000 residents, Orange County has just 16, according to a 2015 report by the Orange County Grand Jury.
That shortage means that many people who suffer from chronic mental illnesses like major depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or addiction often have to wait a day or more after a psychotic episode before a hospital bed opens up.
As a result of this delay, people often end up in expensive emergency room care when they may not need it, and others who might require more care are discharged to make room for other patients, said Holzmann.
Holzmann, who along with other mental health advocates plans to present his plans to the Costa Mesa City Council on Tuesday evening, hopes the center would resemble the Haven for Hope facility in San Antonio, which has attracted national attention for its innovative approach and success. The 22-acre campus that opened in 2009 and provides a combination of emergency shelter, low income housing, social and psychiatric services, and full medical care on-site.
He envisions a program at the Fairview site to provide wrap-around services for 200 to 250 people, including psychiatric evaluations, crisis intervention and up to thirty days of care after a crisis.
“The two most expensive places to put people are in an ER and jail,” Holzmann said. “This would be a low-cost place to spend maybe two to thirty days healing, instead of in a psychiatric unit, and it would be a lower level of care than an emergency room.”
Paul Leon, CEO and President of the Illumination Foundation, an organization which works to provide homeless individuals with housing, medical and mental health support, said that such a facility would help complete what he sees as a piecemeal approach to addressing homelessness and mental health care.
“You need all three parts – the intake in the hospital, a hospital bed for the urgent needs, and then recuperative care so you can adjust their medicine and give them a place to stay,” Leon said. “And then the final piece – permanent housing. And I think we can do that.”
Only in recent years have county officials moved to beef up support and mental health care for homeless.
The Children’s Hospital of Orange County also has plans for a 18-bed psychiatric unit for children under age 12, which is slated to open in 2018. And the county recently won a $3 million state grant to start emergency treatment centers for people with psychiatric crisis.
Leon does not think the facility should model itself after a large mental health institution and attempt to house mentally ill homeless people long-term, noting that many people benefit from the stimulation of living in a community.
“Our theory is, why don’t we start in the communities and transition them in place,” Leon said.
City Has a Say
Although the state can ultimately re-designate the Fairview Center for some other public use, if officials decide to sell the property to a private party the city does have some say in what goes on the property through its zoning laws.
When the Fairview Center opened in 1959, the property was 752 acres and intended to house up to 4,125 residents. A large portion of that property was transferred to the city in the 1970s, eventually becoming the golf course and apartment homes directly adjacent to the property.
The state has also changed its approach to treating developmentally disabled adults over the last decade and has focused on housing individuals in group homes, causing a steady decline in the number of people housed at the Costa Mesa facility.
Whether it includes Holzmann’s vision or not, any future plans would likely include open space, public or private recreational facilities, and institutional uses like medical facilities, with the remaining acreage going toward new housing, including apartments for developmentally disabled adults.
The Costa Mesa City Council approved those uses in 2015 as part of an overhaul of its general plan, according to the Daily Pilot.
Mayor Katrina Foley has said in the past that she would like future housing on the property to prioritize homeless people, veterans and other vulnerable groups. .
Contacted last week, Foley said her concerns are mostly focused on ensuring any future plans for the property will stick to the general plan.
“We don’t want another fairgrounds situation where some legislative proposal is being done in the dead of night and nobody in Costa Mesa has an opportunity to weigh in,” Foley said.
Foley is referring to a battle that began in 2009 when the county fair board took advantage of a Great Recession-era push by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to sell off state-owned properties in order to balance the state budget.
Fair board members conspired with the Schwarzenegger administration to buy the land through a nonprofit they formed and then privatize it. They would have succeeded if not for an aggressive effort by local activists to block the sale.
Local hospitals are also taking an interest in the Fairview Center property, said Leon, noting that a representative of the Hospital Association of Southern California (HASC) was present at a meeting that he attended with Moorlach’s chief of staff.
Hoag Hospital, which is less than 4 miles from the Fairview site, was part of a merger between a number of nonprofit hospitals that was approved by the state last year. Conditional to their agreement with the state, the hospitals will be required to spend at least $30 million in the first three years after the merger toward mental health treatments, including services benefiting the homeless.
Holzmann notes that the mental health campus would only take a portion of the property – up to 25 acres – and that a public-private partnership could help pay for it.
Leon said county leaders will need to work together if they want to have a say in how the property is developed after the Fairview Center closes.
“The takeaway was that, we all have to work together and see what we could do, so the state can’t just decide ‘well there’s nothing viable that can go there and we’re just going to put a prison there,’” Leon said.
“That really encourages us to work together.”
Senior reporter Tracy Wood also contributed to this article.
Contact Thy Vo at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.