Anaheim has struggled with knowing the real-time availability of beds for people living on the street, Mayor Ashleigh Aitken said.

That’s why she made the trek to Sacramento on a cold day in early March as part of the Big City Mayors coalition — made up of mayors from California’s 13 largest cities — to advocate for a pair of bills meant to aid cities like hers help those experiencing homelessness.

“We’re looking at what I like to call the hardest but last mile, which is people that have severe mental health and substance abuse disorders,” Aitken, who was joined in Sacramento by the mayors of San Jose, San Francisco and San Diego, said. “Those are the cases that we now see the majority of our population suffering from.”

The number of unsheltered adults suffering from substance use disorders and mental illness in Orange County, according to the latest point-in-time count, has increased from 2019 to 2022.

One of the bills before the Senate this year, that Aitken is advocating for, would create California’s first real-time online database that would collect and display information about available beds for those who are struggling with mental illness and substance abuse disorders.

The data would not be publicly available information; it could only be accessed by entities deemed appropriate, like health care providers, the bill says.

The other bill on the mayors’ radars would expand the scope of “grave disability” — when an individual is unable to provide for themselves food, clothing and shelter due to a mental illness — to include conditions resulting in “substantial risk or serious harm to the physical or mental health of a person due to a mental health disorder or a substance use disorder.”

The new definition of “grave disability” will apply to the standard for conservatorship, in which a third party makes decisions for and takes care of an individual.

Both bills are sponsored by Sen. Susan Talamantes Eggman, a Stockton Democrat, and both recently saw unanimous, bipartisan support in the Senate Health Committee.

More homeless in OC grapple with substance use, mental illness

In Orange County, about 5,700 people were experiencing homelessness as of May 2022, when the latest point-in-time count was released. Those who are unsheltered, according to the data, experience substance use and mental health issues at a higher rate than those who are sheltered.

And while the number of people experiencing homelessness has gone down since 2019, according to the point-in-time count, the number of unsheltered adults with substance use and mental health issues has gone up by nearly 8% and 3%, respectively.

Anaheim and Irvine are the only two Orange County cities in the Big City Mayors coalition. As of the latest point-in-time count, Anaheim has the highest share of the county’s homeless population with 1,054 people unhoused.

Continued efforts to tackle the issue, like Eggman’s bills, Aitken said, will help Anaheim reduce this number.

“If we have someone who is a good candidate for services, a database would tell us what is available,” Aitken said. “A lot of the nonprofits that we partner with are doing tremendous work out on the streets, and we want to make sure that we are providing them with real-time information.”

“Any time we can move an Anaheim resident off the streets and onto a path to independence, that helps the city, and county, as a whole,” she said.

In Sacramento with the @CABigCityMayors advocating for @SusanEggman bill on conservatorship reform and bed databases. Let’s help family and friends get their loved ones appropriate care. #sb43 #sb363

— Mayor Ashleigh Aitken (@AshleighAitken) March 1, 2023

And although she didn’t travel to Sacramento last month, Irvine Mayor Farrah Khan said she is supportive of both bills, maintaining they would help the whole of Orange County.

“We’re looking at getting people with mental health and addiction the help that they need, and those that haven’t been able to access resources because of outdated conservatorship laws (could) now gain that access as well,” Khan said.

Irvine’s homeless population is only a fraction of Anaheim’s — that 2022 point in time count estimated 60 people there were unhoused — but even still, the city is not immune from the crisis, Khan said.

“We need help with making sure that families that are dealing with individuals with mental illness or addiction that have been struggling on their own, to now be able to get help as well,” she said.

Yet, Veronica Kelley, director of mental health and recovery services at OC Health, has some reservations about the pair of bills.

While she is overall supportive of a statewide database that would show current bed openings, she’s opposed to a provision that could levy penalties on a facility if it “fails to submit data accurately or timely, or as otherwise required.”

And expanding the definition of “gravely disabled,” Kelley said, makes it easier for the state to involuntarily detain people.

“It seems like a huge overreach of the state’s powers,” Kelley said. “It also then requires us to be able to serve somebody in a locked facility while they’re on a conservatorship for their substance use disorder. And there is no evidence that locking someone away and forcing them not to use [drugs] has long-term impacts on sobriety.”

But voluntary care doesn’t work in some special cases when someone is suffering from a serious mental emergency and is unable to make decisions for themselves, said Eggman, the bills’ sponsor. Conservatorships are denied or prematurely terminated due to an “antiquated definition” of “grave disability,” she said.

“It’s time to make our laws match the reality that we see,” she said.