"We need a mental health hospital in East Tennessee."
Knox County General Sessions Judge Tony Stansberry

Mental Health Resources Could Aid the Eviction Crisis

Mediation might help people who are being evicted, but it does not address the underlying problem. 

By: McCall Current

Knox County General Sessions Judge Tony Stansberry enters the Old Courthouse at 8 a.m. sharp every day that he presides over court. Court proceedings do not begin until 9 a.m. but this extra hour allows Judge Stansberry time to read the morning paper while he waits for the pews outside the court room to be filled with every race, gender, and colorful character imaginable. 

“The circus is about to begin” Judge Stansberry says.

Knox County General Sessions Judge Chuck Cerny hears from a landlord and tenant as they approach the bench.

Tuesday General Sessions Court is reserved entirely for landlord, tenant and eviction cases in Knox County. The seasoned attorneys congregate on the right side of the courtroom talking to each other loudly while preparing to represent various landlords. The clerks at the front of the room have begun logging into computers and the court officer is trying to make sure everyone takes off their hats and turns off their cell phones. The rest of the courtroom is filled with people without representation quietly soaking in the real possibility that they could be evicted.

As is typical in every evictions court, most tenants do not have representation even though there is a high probability the landlord does. Legal Aid of East Tennessee shouts out every ten minutes from the front of the courtroom that free legal mediation is available outside for anyone interested. It is a chaotic and confusing experience especially if you do not have representation.

Knoxville had 1,183 evictions in 2016, or about three evictions every day, according to Princeton University’s Eviction Lab. Melony Henry is a paralegal for Legal Aid of East Tennessee. A majority of tenants have access to representation, while a majority of evictees have none. Henry says she believes that most clients of Legal Aid of East Tennessee that need help with mediation are wary of the process and of accepting help.

“A majority of the time, the client does not know what is happening or how the process works,” Henry said in an interview. “There is an issue with not feeling like they can understand the process or there can be an issue with the client coming to the table with unreasonable expectations.”

Judge Stansberry sees hundreds of eviction cases throughout the year that involve mediation. “I am a big believer in mediation. There is Legal Aid and the University of Tennessee Law Student Legal Clinic also helps people who cannot afford to have an attorney.” Judge Stansberry continues, “There are no down sides, no cost, and no harm in talking with someone about your case even if it is just to describe what is happening.”

Mediation is used as a way to reach an agreement between the landlord and tenant in eviction cases. The agreement is then sent to the judge for approval. Three or four months after the agreement is made, they set another court date to make sure that the issue was resolved.

“Mediation is great at finding the root of the issue at hand and resolving it,” Judge Stansberry says.

Mediation is a resource to help solve the legal issue, but there is a lack of access to resources that can help address exactly why the eviction is taking place. “[We need] more social workers,” Henry said. “A lot of times there needs to be some sort of intervention or outside help.”

While there are several resources available to help with financial planning or hoarding issues, there is a lack of access to mental health care. Cherokee Health System and the Helen Ross McNabb center are able to see patients with mental health and addiction needs, but there are not enough beds to serve everyone and a waitlist is formed. The waitlist can pose a problem because the resources are not made available to those in need until after the eviction has already occurred.

According to Mental Health America, 44 million American adults experience a mental health illness. One of every five adults with a mental health illness report they are not able to receive treatment — a steady statistic since 2011.


Tennessee adults with any mental health issue that were not able to receive treatment

In Tennessee, about 20 percent of adults with any mental health issue were not able to receive treatment, according to the organization. Without resources, individuals are forced to face the high cost of paying to be treated on their own — or go without.

Tennessee, with a 15% poverty rate, ranks 42 for the high number of adults with a disability who could not see a doctor due to cost. A quarter of adults in Tennessee reported they could not see a doctor to address their disability. Tennessee must find a way to balance providing affordable or government resources to address the mental health issues of their constituents.

“We need a mental health hospital in East Tennessee,” Judge Stansberry said. “It is a tragedy that Lakeshore closed down.  Most people that come into court to be evicted deal with emotional issues, addiction, or mental health concerns. I would find mental health attention as something as an important and significant step to aid the issue.”