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McNabb Center to Break Ground on 'Safety Center' Alternative to Jail for Mentally Ill

When the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services solicited proposals for its Pre-Arrest Diversion Infrastructure Projectearlier this year, Knox County's proposal scored highest in the state.

The department cited the level of detail in the plan for Knox County's Behavioral Health Urgent Care Center — to be operated by the Helen Ross McNabb Center — and awarded Knox County more than $3.4 million to help it come about.

Then again, planning for the "Safety Center," as it's more commonly known, began more than a decade ago.

"We had a 10-year head start," said McNabb Center President and CEO Jerry Vagnier.

A public "groundbreaking"

Combined with funding from the county and the City of Knoxville, the grant, awarded in August, "was absolutely what we needed as a community to pull it all together," Vagnier said.

McNabb Center will have a public "groundbreaking" event at 2 p.m. Friday at the center's future location, 3343 Dewine Road in Northwest Knoxville. Both the city and county mayors are set to attend, along with Gov. Bill Haslam and Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services Commissioner Marie Williams.

Technically, no ground will be broken; bid winner contractor Richardson Turner Construction will begin a $1.8 million conversion of an existing metal-frame building on the property, which has variously been a church and a gymnastics facility, among other uses. Vagnier said the hope is to have the facility ready to receive clients by January.

The location of the Safety Center initially caused some controversy, with some objecting to its location in a residential area.

Vagnier said the center will treat only "low-level," misdemeanor offenders with behavioral health or addiction problems, diverting them from jail or hospitals. No one accused of violent crimes would be eligible, he said.

"From a clinical perspective, there's no need for additional security," he said, but McNabb Center will have it anyway: "We want the community to feel safe."

More options for those with limited resources

In March, the Knox County Commission approved a 20-year, $1.2 million lease agreement on the property and contracted with McNabb Center for three years, with an option to renew for additional three-year terms. In addition to the state's grant, McNabb Center, which won the bid to operate the Safety Center, will receive $600,000 from Knox County and $400,000 from the city.

The center will have 16 beds and hold people for up to three days, after which they'll be assigned a case manager and released with a detailed "discharge plan" for follow-up care.

"We think that bridge into the community is one of the (crucial elements) to keeping them out of jail again," Vagnier said.

Vagnier acknowledged the difficulty of finding that care for low-income or uninsured people, especially those battling addiction, but expressed hope that a recent $20 million allotment by the state for expanded substance abuse treatment will mean more options for those with limited resources.

He said McNabb Center intends to tailor some services around a small subset of repeat misdemeanor offenders — such as homeless people who catch minor charges, then end up re-jailed after missing court dates or failing to pay fines — who tax local law enforcement officers and have psychiatric and medical needs that strain jail resources. Both Knoxville Police Department and Knox County Sheriff's Office deal with such a group.

"These folks would never have to hit the jail doors," Vagnier said.

He said the initial number of beds — 16 — was based on a needs assessment by city and county law enforcement. With a 72-hour turnaround, the center could see nearly 2,000 people a year.

"I think it's a good place to start," Vagnier said.

McNabb Center also operates for the state some Crisis Stabilization Units, 72-hour voluntary facilities for those in psychiatric distress. Vagnier said the Safety Center differs because clients are referred after committing crimes — "and if they choose to leave, they'll return to jail."

Knox County was one of six sites to get Pre-Arrest Diversion Infrastructure Grants from the state, and its grant was the largest.

Agencies received $2.6 million in Davidson County; $3.1 million in Madison County; $350,000 in Hamilton County; and $400,000 in Putnam County.

McNabb Center also received a $184,000 grant for a program in Hamblen County to provide training for officers and work with women discharged from jail, but it's not a physical site like the Safety Center.

"The research indicates people with mental illnesses tend to stay in jail longer, and when released, face a higher recidivism rate,” Commissioner Williams said. “Through pre-arrest diversion strategies, local communities can help people stay out of jail by offering mental health and substance use disorder treatment. The investment made by the Governor’s Office and the General Assembly will ensure more Tennesseans have access to treatment, will help alleviate jail overcrowding, and will reduce costs for local communities. This is a very positive thing all around.”

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