As Dallas Boarding Homes Struggle, City Hall Sits on its Hands

Texas lawmakers gave cities the power to regulate homes for the mentally ill -- but so far, Dallas hasn't used it.

In Dallas, "boarding home" is really a catch-all term for several different types of group facilities run by private operators: disabled group dwelling units, residential hotels, group residential facilities and halfway houses. These are the designations provided by the city's Code Compliance Department, and each is a little different in how many people it's allowed to house and where it can be located; group residential facilities, for example, have to be at least 1,000 feet from one another. But most of them are small homes in residential neighborhoods, filled with people who aren't quite sick enough to be in the hospital. There are other technicalities: Boarding homes can't give out medication, but they can help residents take it, and the homes can't house anyone unable to bathe, clothe or feed themselves. Boarding home residents stay in the same place for anywhere from a few months to several decades; some cycle through homes and hospitals in a years-long loop.

Mental health advocates guess there are around 300 homes all over the city, many of them clustered in North Oak Cliff and Pleasant Grove. The real number could be higher; it's not hard for some of them to stay hidden. Code Compliance keeps a list of 338 homes it believes are open now, but some of those are licensed assisted living facilities, which receive Medicare funding and are overseen by the state.

Boarding homes are supposed to register with the city, get a certificate of occupancy and receive yearly code and fire inspections. Donaldson, a former NorthSTAR caseworker who runs two houses in Pleasant Grove and one in North Dallas, says many operators are following the rules. "Sometimes this industry gets a lot of bad rap," she says. "But don't get me wrong, there are also people who just open up homes and don't let the city of Dallas know."

Demetra Donaldson runs three homes, two in Pleasant Grove and one in North Dallas. "I'd be excited to be getting some type of standards."
Nomi Vaughan
Demetra Donaldson runs three homes, two in Pleasant Grove and one in North Dallas. "I'd be excited to be getting some type of standards."
Heather Boulware, one of Demetra Donaldson's residents.
Nomi Vaughan
Heather Boulware, one of Demetra Donaldson's residents.

Donaldson's clients are either mentally ill or in court-ordered rehab for drugs and alcohol. Boulware's boarding home is a roomy, spotless place in Pleasant Grove with a big deck out back, a barbecue grill and a daily schedule posted on a whiteboard in the living room. On a recent afternoon, Donaldson points out a metal kitchen chair that was dragged out to the far corner of the yard by a resident.

"He likes to sing out in the backyard," she explains, smiling a little. "Because if he sings loud up close, it's an issue."

Not all boarding homes look like Donaldson's, as Hogan and his team found. One persistent problem mental health advocates hear about is the behavior of some operators who become the "representative payee" for their boarders. Representative payees have the residents' SSI checks signed over to them. It's legal and sometimes necessary when a resident can't be trusted with his own money and has no family to take charge of it.

"For some of them, no one else is showing concern," says Saprina Winbush, who runs four homes in Dallas and Lancaster. "Some people can manage their money better, but others really need an allowance." But bad operators, mental health advocates say, take advantage of that system by giving the residents only a fraction of their money and pocketing the rest.

You don't have to look far to find examples of the bad homes and operators. In 2009, the Austin American-Statesman wrote about a woman named Tommie Yvette McKinney, who allegedly opened credit accounts in her clients' names and racked up thousands in debts. Neglect can be just as serious a problem as outright maliciousness; Lee Hancock and Kim Horner at The Dallas Morning News wrote multi-part reports about homes that were dirty and poorly maintained.

Inspection reports obtained by the Observer from the city's Code Compliance Department spanning the last five years show the city sometimes struggles to make boarding homes comply with basic health and safety rules. Though most homes pass inspection, the City Attorney's Office frequently must take action against operators who repeatedly fail to fix violations.

Despite a sustained media spotlight on the problem, the city of Dallas has vacillated between discussing the boarding home issue and virtually ignoring it, at least publicly. In many ways, Dallas seems further behind the problem in 2012 than it was five years ago, when Hogan and his team went to work. After they worked for 15 months, the city's next budget was tight, and task-force funding evaporated.

"Now, what happens is I can call the team members together informally and we can go out on a site, if we think there's real problems there," Hogan says. "But it's not an official entity anymore."

With the loss of the interdepartmental team, Hogan says, "We lost a lot of that information. Now we have a vague idea of what's out there." Each department, he says, has its own list of homes, but they become more "fragmented" as time passes.

"We're not back to dead zero," he says, "but we really lost some ground."

Janie Metzinger, the public policy director at the Dallas branch of Mental Health America, is a restrained woman with shoulder-length gray hair. She works out of an airy office in a former church, and bad boarding homes seem to make her very, very angry — in her polite, ladylike way. "What would motivate you to exploit people?" she asks, shaking her head. She's fiercely protective of boarding home residents. "Everybody needs someplace to live," she says. "The problem we see with some boarding homes is that they mitigate against recovery."

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357 Armadillo
357 Armadillo

This article and the Observer's earlier articles illustrate the dark side of the body business, where people take control of other people's lives, patient recruiters are given access to captive populations, and the rules are made by groups like Mental Health America who get money from the drug industry. It is an environment ripe for fraud, kickbacks, and other forms of corruption. Getting people off the street when they have no where to go is a laudible goal. But only if it is done without violating people's safety and their basic rights.


@357 Armadillo Demetra Donaldson is a crook who states she runs a non-profit organization and only claims she has three boarding homes when in fact she has 6 or 7  and are run by unprofessinal and disorganized management. She also peddles stolen devises such as stolen MacBooks and other electronic devices. She is very unstable and will lie to tenants family members to try and extort more money from them. Her whole operation is a tragic example of why Dallas needs to regulate people and their so called non-profit organizations because she and her whole establishment is a complete fraud. If you want a stable and caring facility to live in PLEASE for your own safety stay far away from this organization.