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OC Board of Supervisors renews contracts with Mental Health Association despite pushback

Orange County Register - 11/29/2023

The OC Board of Supervisors is renewing the county’s contract with the Mental Health Association of Orange County, a multi-service center for adults who are homeless and dealing with mental illness, despite objections Tuesday, Nov. 28, from several Santa Ana officials and residents to the $2.4 million extension.

The OC Health Care Agency reports the center has shown success in getting people who are homeless connected with resources and supportive programs since it opened in 2001.

But those in opposition of the contract pointed to public safety concerns, saying the Santa Ana center leads people who are homeless to congregate on Main Street near parks and where children are walking to school.

Santa Ana Councilmember Phil Bacerra argued at the meeting the “walk-in” nature of the facility is having a “devastating impact” on the nearby community.

“In other cities in Orange County, MHA (Mental Health Association), according to their website, has mental health professionals that provide primary mental health assessment, diagnosis and treatment, crisis intervention, case management and support. Meanwhile, here in Santa Ana, MHA provides only meals, showers, laundry and access to county mental health clinics,” Santa Ana Councilmember Phil Bacerra told the Board of Supervisors. “Ironically and sadly, MHA offers no real effective mental health services here in Santa Ana. The county’s Yale shelter and the city of Santa Ana’s Carnegie Shelter provide more effective mental health services than MHA does.”

Veronica Kelly, director of behavioral health at the OC Health Care Agency, said that although the center does not provide direct treatment, it does provide screening, referral and connections to mental health services throughout the county.

“It provides targeted outreach to unhoused veterans and unhoused people in the city. It provides peer counseling services and onsite groups,” Kelly said. “It provides housing assistance, placement and emergency housing, which is shelter, access to shelter beds. It provides vocational and educational services, assists people to get their benefits so that they have insurance, like Medi-Cal.”

Pointing to some of the center’s success, supervisors Doug Chaffee, Andrew Do, Don Wagner voted to renew the county’s contract with the Mental Health Association for another year. Supervisors Vicente Sarmiento and Katrina Foley were opposed – Sarmiento represents the Second District, which includes Santa Ana.

From 2022 to 2023, the Mental Health Association was tasked with referring at least 2,000 people to supportive services, and it referred 3,832, Kelly said. It had a contract goal of providing vocational training services to 150 people and enrolled a total of 228 people. Another goal was to move 75 people to permanent housing within the year. MHA referred 402 people to housing, of which 92 individuals were housed.

Sarmiento, who is a former mayor of Santa Ana, said he doesn’t oppose the organization itself, or its services, but he argued the location used needs to change.

“This isn’t a new problem. This is a problem that’s existed for many, many years. Sometimes you have a good service in a bad location,” he said.

“One of the reasons I ran, when I was mayor, for this seat was because I wanted to make sure that services like this were shared by the entire county. That the responsibility was borne not just by one city, but by all 34 cities,” he said. “We know that we’ve done plenty here in Santa Ana and that we have stood up many things, but unfortunately, that can’t be the solution going forward, to solely have one city shoulder all those responsibilities.”

Foley said she doesn’t believe drop-off facilities and needle exchange programs, which have also recently been proposed in Santa Ana, are the answer to the homelessness crisis.

“I don’t think it’s fair that our residents, our businesses, children, community people have inferior rights over people who are taking over public space sitting outside of businesses, creating a nuisance, bringing trash, doing drugs in public,” Foley said. “I will work with our county staff to help every person in this county that wants help. We must do that. That is our goal as a county. We are a service provider and we must do that. But we have to also help our residents who are investing in the community, who live here, who want to just have safe neighborhoods.”

Chaffee, Do and Wagner, however, shared concerns that closing down the facility would leave a gap in care. Chaffee said he can’t see how the homeless issue in that area is directly caused by the center.

“I have no objection to building it somewhere else,” he said. “But to shut it down with barely a month before the contract is over, I don’t think it’s the right answer.”

In June, the supervisors discussed moving the Mental Health Association to a new location outside of Santa Ana, but Jeffrey Thrash, CEO of MHA, said the organization hasn’t found a facility that accommodates their services. He said the search is still on and the Board of Supervisors included in the renewed contract the stipulation a new location is found by the end of next year.

“I don’t disagree that there’s a homelessness crisis in Santa Ana. I don’t disagree that other cities need to step up and do more, that Sant Ana has done more than their fair share,” Thrash said. “But I disagree with closing a successful program. They are getting people off the streets, the most difficult people off the streets, the most vulnerable, the severely mentally ill homeless. I don’t agree with closing that completely after 37 years.”

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