Orange County officials Tuesday finalized the purchase of a building along the Santa Ana River that officials have said will be used to house a new center for mental health and drug treatment services.
The proposed center – at 265 South Anita Dr. in the city of Orange – is in a cluster of office buildings along the eastern bank of the river, just north of the 5 freeway.
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.
County supervisors voted 5-0 in open session Tuesday to purchase the building for $7.8 million, after first discussing it privately in a closed session. Additionally, the county will pay $1.3 million to relocate existing tenants who have been renting space at the office building.
There was no word Tuesday on when services will start at the property. While the supervisors vote to buy the building came in a public session where they were allowed to talk about it, the supervisors opted to say nothing in public about the building or which services will be offered and when.
County spokeswoman Jen Nentwig said she didn’t have information about when services at the building will be available.
County officials previously have said plans for the building included 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.
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, wrote Annette Mugrditchian, director of the county’s adult behavioral health services, in an emailed response to questions in December. “Patients will not be released to the street,” she added.
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.
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,” county Supervisor Todd Spitzer said when supervisors started the buying process in December.
He said the building is in a “great” location, away from homes.
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 in December.
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 a 2016 interview. “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.
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 – 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.
At 44,500 square feet, the two-story Anita Drive building has just over 1 acre of floor space, equivalent to about 90 percent of the green playing area of an NFL football field.
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.
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at [email protected].