Orange County officials are moving forward with plans to create a center for mental health and drug treatment services next to the Santa Ana River, with county supervisors on Tuesday unanimously approving the nearly $8 million purchase of a large office building to house it.
The center, if it comes to fruition, is seen by advocates and officials as a major step toward addressing a severe shortage of mental health service options in Orange County that health experts have said contributes to worsening mental illnesses and increased emergency hospitalizations for psychiatric crises.
“This is, I think, a big breakthrough,” said Matt Holzmann, an advocate with the National Alliance on Mental Illness – Orange County whose family struggled to find treatment options for his stepson Max Chorak, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, rotated in and out of emergency rooms and jails, and ended up homeless before taking his own life in 2014.
“We hope that this [center] can turn into a model for a much better mental health system,” added Holzmann, who serves on the Orange County Mental Health Board.
In a sign of worsening mental health in Orange County, the rate at which children were hospitalized for serious mental illnesses grew 71 percent in recent years, according to the latest county data.
“Our [emergency rooms] have been overloaded” with people experiencing psychiatric crises, and the proposed treatment campus would fill “a significant gap,” said county Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who represents the district the campus would be in. He said the building is in a “great” location, away from homes.
The proposed center – at 265 South Anita Dr. in the city of Orange – is neighbored by other office buildings just north of where the 5 and 57 freeways meet, and is wedged between the 57 freeway and the eastern bank of the Santa Ana River. It’s close to the county’s Theo Lacy jail and UCI Medical Center, one of the main hospitals for low-income people, including mentally ill homeless people, in Orange County.
Orange officials haven’t heard any concerns from the neighboring businesses, said City Councilman Mike Alvarez.
“I think it’s a good site for that, since it’s pretty isolated in terms of the street and the location,” Alvarez said in an interview Tuesday.
“We haven’t heard of anybody opposed to it,” including the other offices that are near the proposed campus, he added. “I’m supportive of it. I know they need to do something, and I think the location will work.”
Orange County’s proposal is modeled after a mental health campus in San Antonio, Texas, called The Restoration Center, said Mary Hale, Orange County’s behavioral health director, in an emailed response to questions.
The 22-acre San Antonio campus is widely considered a national model for mental health and drug treatment. It involves a coalition of local agencies and has reportedly saved the public a net $10 million per year, while offering a host of treatment services for people with mental illnesses and drug addictions.
When the center opened, “their homeless presence in downtown San Antonio just about went away overnight,” said Rick Francis, Costa Mesa’s assistant CEO, in an interview last year. “It is absolutely impressive what they were able to do.”
Spitzer and other Orange County officials toured the San Antonio campus last year, and local city leaders in Orange County plan to tour it next month as part of a trip organized by the Association of California Cities – Orange County.
“We’re gonna steal [ideas] from the best,” said Holzmann. “It’s pretty exciting.”
While officials have wanted to create something similar in Orange County, one of the biggest hurdles has been finding a suitable location.
Amid a severe shortage of mental health treatment beds, county officials have been trying for over a year to find a location for a crisis stabilization unit – a 24/7 facility that treats people experiencing a psychiatric emergency – which is part of the county’s plan for the proposed campus.
Two previous attempts to create stabilization units – in Garden Grove and Tustin – both fell apart this year, with the county withdrawing its Tustin effort last month amid opposition from local residents who said it would attract drug addicts and homeless people.
“We do need to site [mental health] crisis stabilization units, and they need to go into a city somewhere. And we need help,” County CEO Frank Kim said in a September interview.
The city of Orange, meanwhile, “has been very good to work with,” Kim said. “Their city manager, their city council members have all been positive.”
Alvarez echoed that view Tuesday, saying county officials kept the city informed about what they were considering.
“They had kept us in the loop that they were looking at [the Anita Dr. property],” Alvarez said. “We’ve had a pretty good relationship between our city manager and Frank Kim.”
The county supervisors’ vote Tuesday was unanimous to purchase the Anita Drive building in Orange for $7.8 million from a school district that has been leasing out the offices to businesses. County staff plan to inspect the building and conduct other due diligence before finalizing the purchase.
Supervisor Lisa Bartlett said she was “very excited” about the potential campus, which she said will help divert people from emergency rooms. “Emergency room care is the most expensive” form of medical care, she said.
Supervisor Andrew Do thanked Orange city officials for “stepping up” and “really collaborating” with the county to support a “critical piece” of infrastructure.
At 44,500 square feet, the two-story building has just over 1 acre of floor space, equivalent to about 90 percent of the green playing area of an NFL football field. “That’s a big building,” Holzmann said. “You can do a lot with that.”
Plans for the campus include a crisis stabilization unit for both adults and children, a substance sobering station, addiction withdrawal services, crisis recovery beds, an outpatient triage center and residential treatment center, said Annette Mugrditchian, director of the county’s adult behavioral health services, in an emailed response to questions.
After people receive treatment at the campus, they could go to another program or be referred to other mental health and substance abuse treatment services, Mugrditchian said. “Patients will not be released to the street,” she added.
Alvarez, the Orange councilman, said while he supports the Orange location, other cities also need to step up and host more services.
“I wish that the county would look to cities down in South County,” he said. “It seems like Orange and Santa Ana…shoulder a lot of this stuff, and a lot of the county – especially South County – doesn’t.”
Additionally, Alvarez said he hopes the new mental health campus will allow officials to “clear the Santa Ana River,” where hundreds of homeless people live in an encampment.
“You know we have the Allure apartments there that are right there next to the riverbed. We’re trying to assure them that we’re trying to move the homeless to another location,” he said.
Regarding the proposed campus, Alvarez said he’ll be asking, “How’s it going to remove the homeless from the river trail?”
County officials have been in negotiations to buy the Anita building since at least September, when it was on a closed session supervisors’ agenda. The county is buying the property from the Fountain Valley School District, which has been leasing offices in the building to businesses.
The school district is over 5 miles away from the Anita Drive property it owns. The building currently is 84 percent occupied, according to a county staff report.
It’s unclear when the school district bought the building, how much it paid for it, and when the current tenants will be departing if the sale is finalized. Superintendent Mark Johnson didn’t return a voicemail late Tuesday afternoon.
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.