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.

Baker says it's rare for DMS or other providers, as far as he knows, to blacklist boarding homes. "We don't typically take places off the list, because the homes are so variable in our experience," he says. "It's not a good list. It's not a bad list. It's just a list."

The real issue is the dire shortage of housing for the mentally ill, the disabled and ex-cons, he says, particularly sex offenders, which leaves his caseworkers with few options. "Sometimes you're just desperate because no one will take some of these people."

Brandy Ruckdeschel is the clinical director of North Texas Behavioral Health Authority (NTBHA), the local entity that oversees NorthSTAR services in seven counties, including Dallas. She says NTBHA would like to create "recommended" and "not-recommended" lists of boarding homes, but it can't until the city creates some standards. "We just don't feel like we have enough information where we can comfortably tell people, 'This is a recommended boarding home,' without the city moving forward," she says.

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.

In the meantime, boarding home operators keep talking about what they themselves need, although no one appears to be listening.

"I'd be excited to be getting some type of standards," Demetra Donaldson says. She thinks most boarding home owners "are trying to operate appropriately, with what they know. Only a few are not, who are just inhumane." She teaches workshops once a month for new operators, where she shows them examples of forms they should require their tenants to sign. A lease, for example, doesn't work well for mentally ill people, because they often don't quite know what they're agreeing to, but a code of conduct can make the expectations of the house clear.

"People don't initially know how hard this is," she says of new operators. "They look at the bottom line. They hear about the business side, the financial side, but they don't even know what mental illness is." Nor do they know how expensive taking care of sick people can be. "I tell people all the time, if you're making money in this business, then you're probably not doing it right."

But operators need much more help from the community than they're getting, she says. "Boarding homes could operate properly if we had more support. There's so much turnover with social workers, caseworkers and case managers." And mentally ill people need places to go during the day, away from the home, and ways to get there. "We need day centers and transportation programs," Donaldson says. "We can't even get [discounted rates for] bus passes, and some of them are too paranoid to get on a bus anyway." She dreams of buying a van to transport her residents — the staff car is long gone, stolen by a resident who wrecked it. Many food banks won't give boarding home operators food, she says, "because they think we're making a profit off it." So her husband, a children's pastor, volunteers at one food bank to get groceries from them. "Food is our greatest expense," she says, especially because anti-psychotic medications tend to make people hungry.

"We're supposed to do all of this, run all of this, on $17 or $18 a day per person," Saprina Winbush says.

And the operators keep warning of more disturbing things they see. Chiquita Spears, who runs several homes in Pleasant Grove, says a fellow operator came into one of her houses and lured several tenants away by offering them "drugs and no rules." Several people said they had heard of operators who take clients referred to them by hospitals and social work agencies, then sell them to other boarding homes.

"We've gotten complaints in the past," about selling clients, Dr. Baker at DMS says. "That turned out to be unfounded. ... We could never show that that was the case." He allows that "it could very well be real," but that the boarding home business is "so competitive, it lends itself to rumor-mongering."

For Janie Metzinger, the confusion over something as sensational as whether boarding home operators are selling their clients is precisely why the industry should be better regulated.

"I am appalled that anyone would sell another human being," she says. "We have done everything we can to make sure that when we hear of an individual doing that, we make sure the hospitals know what exactly is going on, and the service providers too. ... It is an absolutely immoral practice. I have no idea how anyone could think that that was in any way whatsoever conscionable."

But even with the city frozen, rumors flying, and more money bleeding away with every passing year, Metzinger still finds a way to look on the bright side. "I think they are working on drafting something," she says. "We're optimistic we'll be getting a good law here in Dallas." Someday.

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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.