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Officials Draw Ire from Neighborhood for Safety Center Location

During a heated public meeting on Thursday night, the Knox County authorities who have endorsed a plan to create an arrest-diversion mental health facility attempted to console angry community members who believe the so-called safety center shouldn't be placed in their neighborhood.

"We're not talking about cattle. We're not talking about dogs. We're talking about human beings," Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett said at the beginning of the meeting after saying the largest mental health facilities in the state are jails. "We're talking about your best friend, maybe your mom or your dad or your brother or your sister or your kids, your daughter, and we can do a whole lot better than that."

But the reassurances of Burchett, Sheriff J.J. Jones, District Attorney General Charme Allen and Helen Ross McNabb CEO Jerry Vagnier appeared to fail, as the comments that garnered the most applause were from residents who said they felt they were being "shamed" into accepting the center's proposed location at 3343 Dewine Road.

Officials have said the center, run by Helen Ross McNabb and staffed by the Sheriff's Office, would serve as a place where people suffering from mental illness or addiction could choose to receive treatment instead of being taken to jail for minor, nonviolent offenses.

"This type of facility will do good," said Jerry Gwinn, a warehouse manager who lives nearby in Cumberland Estates. "But I believe it was very short sighted to put it in a neighborhood which is one of Knoxville's largest, in close proximity to churches and day cares. ...

"Now, I'm trying to do this and not let the anger flow, but last week's meeting was a slap in this community's face," Gwinn continued, referencing the unexpected format of the first meeting. "Tonight's meeting, I think most everyone in here who lives in this community feels like we're trying to be shamed into, 'This is a huge problem and y'all ought to go along.' I disagree."

Several residents expressed skepticism of the safety center's three-day treatment period and argued 72 hours is long enough to detox an addict but not long enough to rehabilitate one.

Others sought clarification on who will decide which offenders can receive treatment at the center. When Sheriff Jones said deputies and officers would be able to make that decision on a case-by-case basis, some residents said they didn't trust their judgment.

Not everyone in attendance opposed the center. All who articulated their support spoke from personal experience dealing with friends and family members suffering from mental illness.

"I live 2 miles from here and I would gladly have this in my front yard if they would put it there," said Donna Towe. She went on to say her daughter Taygen, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at 15 years old, died last July after being "cycled through the jail system."

The Metropolitan Planning Commission's consideration of a use on review for the Dewine Road location is still scheduled for March 9, despite some residents asking for the meeting to be delayed.

Although a parking lot at 201 Springdale Ave. was initially in the running, officials have said the current location is unlikely to change, as other locations would be more expensive or would require resources the McNabb Center doesn't have.

The Dewine Road location is ideal, McNabb spokesman Houston Smelcer said, because it's next to the organization's similar rehabilitation facility, CenterPointe.

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