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.

Metzinger lobbied hard for the passage of House Bill 216, written by state Representative José Menéndez. Originally, the San Antonio Democrat tried to require DADS, the state agency that oversees nursing homes, to take on boarding houses; DADS testified that would cost the state $50 million, and the idea was dropped. Instead, HB 216, which passed into law in 2009, authorizes cities to register the homes and permits municipalities to set some standards for care of residents.

Metzinger, Donaldson and Dave Hogan were part of a group that also helped create model standards adopted by the state Health and Human Services Commission. They recommend that cities require the houses to have working heat and electricity, for example, doors that lock, at least one window in every room and at least three feet of space between each bed. For the first time, cities could require boarding homes to report clients' complaints of abuse, neglect and exploitation, as well as deaths, fires, missing people, criminal acts and fights between residents.

Right now, Metzinger says, "Boarding homes need to meet fire and safety codes, and not much more. So that's why we want standards, first of all. And we want inspections to be done [annually]" and more frequently if the home needs it. Also, she says, the city should levy fines against boarding homes operators who don't comply, "fines of significant seriousness that they will get your attention, so it won't be worth an individual's while to run an unlicensed boarding home."

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.

Metzinger says the city could charge boarding homes registration fees. Those, along with fines for noncompliance, would help offset the cost. All of the requirements in the state model standards are still up to Dallas to include, or not, in its own city ordinance.

"I thought I'd crafted a very flexible bill," Representative Menéndez says. "It gives cities the authority to go out and fix the situation."

Instead, Dallas appears to have had a curious reaction to the passage of the new law. In April 2011, during the Legislature's last regular session, City Manager Mary Suhm informed the City Council that assistant city attorney Larry Casto would brief them on new laws, with a special focus on "state decisions that could potentially negatively impact local government budgets." One of those was the boarding home law passed two years earlier.

"The City of Dallas hoped to amend this legislation in 2011 to address concerns regarding municipal enforcement of the registration standards," Suhm wrote in her memo. "However, the author was not amenable to such amendments."

The City Attorney's Office didn't respond to repeated interview requests from the Observer, but Menéndez and his chief of staff, Don Jones, say Casto visited the representative's office to ask him to retroactively amend the bill so that cities also would have the power to regulate nursing homes and assisted living facilities. The problem is that those types of institutions are already overseen by the state, and the addition would have made the entire law unenforceable.

Neither Menéndez nor Jones will say outright whether they think that was what the city intended. "I think the gentleman we sat with was just ill-informed," Menéndez says, but he's found that many cities are leery of the costs and potential legal liability of formally acknowledging boarding homes. "A lot of city managers and people who are responsible for the fiscal well-being of cities seem to think, 'Once I start doing this, I can't stop,'" he says. "Ignorance can be their defense. I hope that's not the case, though."

Council member Scott Griggs, a member of the council's Housing Committee, says he has begun putting together a possible ordinance for Dallas, though he acknowledges that it's still "very early."

"I think the time for action is here," he says. "The state passed this enabling legislation creating these powers for the cities, and since then we've seen a model ordinance. It has been put out there, and the city of El Paso stepped up."

Griggs says many city officials have "a sense of where the bad operators are," and an ordinance would allow the city "to have something actionable." El Paso's law should serve as an example, he said, and he's already shown it to council member Carolyn Davis, who leads the housing committee, and to representatives at the city attorney and city manager's offices. El Paso's ordinance "shows that we don't have to reinvent the wheel," he says. "It dispels this mythology that there's nothing we can do."


While the city moves at its own pace, mental health caseworkers keep referring clients to boarding homes. Or rather, patients choose their own homes and their caseworkers try their best to help them, using incomplete and constantly changing information.

"Patients choose," says Dr. James Baker of Dallas Metrocare Services. "And sometimes they make bad choices." Five years ago, he says, DMS developed a process to assess a home at the time a client was placed there. "If we see there are poor living conditions, we try to present alternatives to the patients and hopefully get them to make a better decision.

"We and other providers have a list," Baker says. "It's basically a list of anybody who's willing to have you live with them. The issue our caseworkers have is usually trying to find a place for somebody, particularly folks who sometimes burn their bridges at other places." Clients tend to choose homes based on word-of-mouth, or go back to places they've been before. DMS caseworkers are seeing a new trend too: boarding home operators who show up at state hospitals and recruit new tenants directly.

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1 comments
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.

 
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