Tim Burchett remembers the incident well. A old friend, staying in a home Burchett had arranged for him, wandered onto a neighbor's porch and stole a can of mixed nuts. He did it because voices in his head instructed him to do so. The man was taken to jail, but it wasn't until Burchett, then a state senator, intervened that his friend got treatment for what jail authorities came to realize was bipolar disorder. He got medications, and got better.
"But not everyone has a friend who's a state senator," Burchett says.
Tim Burchett, now the mayor of Knox County, says he wants to help people in similar situations. Nonviolent offenders struggling with substance abuse or mental illness often end up behind bars, not in treatment. That, he says, has to stop.
"The largest mental health hospital in the state is the Shelby County Jail," he says. "The second-largest is the Davidson County Jail, and the third-largest is probably Knox County."
Under a proposal making its way through Knoxville and Knox County government, the county would contract the Helen Ross McNabb Center to operate a "safety center," a short-term treatment facility to be located off Western Avenue in northwestern Knoxville. Nonviolent offenders picked up by law enforcement would be taken there for up to three days of immediate care, followed by longer-term planning for things like follow-up treatment and housing.
"If you're fiscally conservative, like I am, there are cost savings," Burchett says, pointing out worries about jail overcrowding and burdens on law enforcement. "If you're concerned about the social issues, not only will it save tax dollars, it'll save lives."
Some residents who live near the planned safety center haven't been swayed by Burchett's argument. In two recent public forums and a Metropolitan Planning Commission meeting, opponents lined up to urge county officials to move the center elsewhere, perhaps closer to downtown where services for the homeless and mentally ill are clustered.
But northwest Knoxville is the spot chosen and approved, in part because the Helen Ross McNabb Center already operates a facility there.
"We've been operating that very community for nineteen years," Helen Ross McNabb CEO Jerry Vagnier says. "Up until now, we've been fully supported in that community."
Vagnier says the current center's treatment outcomes are better than national averages. The proposed center will be right next to the current McNabb building, costing less money than another site and offering a more convenient location than the Knox County Detention Facility at Maloneyville.
Knoxville's city council will vote whether to approve the safety center on March 27. The Knox County Commission will do the same the following day.
Brandon Hollingsworth's interview with Tim Burchett and Jerry Vagnier was taped on March 14 and aired in an abbreviated form on WUOT on March 16.