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Homelessness: Orange County launches system of care to break mental illness-addiction-homelessness-incarceration cycle

Orange County is embracing a new approach to break the cycle of mental illness, addiction, homelessness, and incarceration.

On Tuesday, the Orange County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a system of care that incorporates enhanced mental health care, substance abuse treatment, and vocational training into its criminal justice system.

“Mental illness and drug addiction are some of the root causes of homelessness,” said Orange County Supervisor Andrew Do, who serves as Chair of the Orange County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council (OCCJCC). “This new approach keeps violent offenders locked up, help addicts get clean and sober, and provides treatment for patients with mental health issues.”

Over the past 10 months, Supervisor Do worked with Supervisor Doug Chaffee, Sheriff Don Barnes, and members of the OCCJCC to develop the new approach laid out in the Integrated Services 2025 Vision Report. The report puts in action solutions to issues identified through the 2017 Stepping Up Initiative, a countywide assessment of Orange County’s correctional health, mental health, and criminal justice systems.

“Addressing the needs of the most vulnerable is our collective test, and only together can we begin to solve those systematic issues,” said Orange County Supervisor Doug Chaffee. “And we cannot do this without your support: our residents, community leaders and stakeholders.”

Habitual Offenders Cycle In and Out of Prison
Five percent of offenders in Orange County – nearly 2,000 people – return to jail 5 times or more in a given year.

Among these high utilizers, who are responsible for 20 percent of all jail stays, 58 percent are homeless, 85 percent have reported substance use disorders, and 46 percent reported having moderate to severe mental illnesses.

“The best way to break this cycle is by getting mentally ill offenders on an effective treatment plan,” said Supervisor Do. “With more effective coordination, Orange County and our partners can maximize existing resources, seek additional state legislative social service support, and advance public safety.”

Jail: De Facto Mental Hospital
Far too many mentally ill and homeless individuals end up in Orange County’s jails. Between May 1, 2018 through April 31, 2019, 43,000 offenders entered the Orange County jails. Of those 43,000 offenders:

  • 21 percent had a mental illness
  • 40 percent suffered from substance use disorder
  • 10 percent have a co-occurring disorder

“By default, the Orange County Jail has become the largest mental health hospital in our county,” said Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes. “As I have made clear many times, if our jail system is going to function as a mental health hospital, then it is going to be a good one.”

He added, “Increased specialized housing units for the mentally ill, higher medical and correctional staffing ratios, substance abuse step down units, and enhanced re-entry programs will all be implemented over the course of the next few years.”

This article was released by the Office of Supervisor Andrew Do.


  1. Sounds like a great plan!

  2. What refreshingly positive steps are being taken for our community members who are struggling with living productive lives. Hurray for our enlightened leaders!

  3. I’m not sure how this will work with such a broken system. My son was diagnosed with paranoia and schizophrenia 20 years ago. For the last 18 he has lives on the streets, off of prescription meds. All because the system which I include law enforcement, hospitals and the courts. In most situations in my sons case the people involved were for the most part incompetent at every turn. My son was recently hospitalized for several weeks for assaulting me. He drinks to self medicate and was drunk when he threw me across the room permanently damaging my knees. My big chance to again try to get him help. The doctor told me…as a mother I needed to learn how to let go. This was the same doctor that promised me on the night he was committed that she would get him conserved. Four weeks later she was going to release him in spite of my letter explaining his 18 year history and that he needed to be conserved. She forgot her promise. But she kept him 6 weeks and in the end the judge released him without conservatorship. He was to pick up a prescription at the drug store. Big joke….like he’s going to willingly take meds after so long. Moreover. they never called in the prescription anyway. This is a brief explanation of what happened. So many more errors were made… many to list here. The HBPD told me they couldn’t charge him with elder abuse because they don’t have that. Adult protective services called me because I’m 72 and said that was a straight up lie. Just another way to put him back on the streets. I could spend a day sharing my living hell and heartbreak thanks to an irreparably broken system.

  4. I’m happy to see that something is going to be put in place for our homeless, the mentally ill and drug abusers. Fingers crossed, I honestly hope that this is the beginning of getting our homeless offenders off of our city streets because our reputations are being marred.

  5. So grateful for this action. Mentally challenged and drug/alcohol addicted need special care….not looked down upon, but, instead, helped!
    Thank you for this positive step in the right direction.

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