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

The first few months after her husband died, Heather Boulware was fine. She didn't feel fine, of course, but she managed to keep taking the medications she'd been prescribed five years before to treat her bipolar disorder and continued to care for the couple's three children. "I was doing what I'd always done," she says. "But I was completely numb."

Suddenly, about six months later, "everything just fell apart."

Her husband's death had been equally sudden: Pneumonia had landed him in the hospital, but he'd made a strong recovery and come back home. Then he caught a cold. She came home one afternoon from a quick trip to the grocery store to find him dead.

After a few months without him, she sent the children to her mother's house in Oklahoma. She intended for them to stay there only a few months while she pulled herself together, but after awhile, she stopped taking her medication and started making a new plan. She cleaned out the apartment, set cut-off dates for all the utilities and wrote a series of letters to friends and family, which she left to be found later.

Finally, a day came when she knew the maintenance man would have to stop by the apartment. She didn't want her body to go undiscovered for weeks or months, so it was time. "I wrapped a cell-phone charger cord around my neck," she says. "Then I put a 13-gallon garbage bag over my head. Then I put another cell-phone cord around my neck."

But she didn't die. Boulware awoke in Green Oaks, a psychiatric hospital. From there, she was transferred to Terrell State, another hospital some 40 miles east of Dallas. "I was so mad I was still alive," she says. "I was like, 'How dare you save me?'" It wasn't until hospital staff forced her to take her medication that she realized how grateful she was to have been saved. "I don't even really know how to explain it, except your thinking is totally backwards."

Her stay at Terrell lasted 16 days, a bit shorter than the month or so the average patient remains there. She wasn't completely well, not by a long shot, but the immediate storm had passed. Where would she go from here? The only person she felt she could stay with was her father, a salesman, but he was often away for work. After talking with a psychiatrist at Terrell, she realized that with so much time alone, she likely would try again to kill herself.

On a recent afternoon, Boulware was sitting cross-legged on her small twin bed in a house in Pleasant Grove. One of her roommates, a petite schizophrenic woman who at times thinks she's a very large man, hovered in the doorway, bouncing a little and smiling anxiously.

Boulware was lucky to live through her suicide attempt, and lucky too that she was able to find a decent boarding home to move into. She says that the Pleasant Grove house has helped her start to get better. But the fact is that some boarding homes may make their clients worse, by being dirty, chaotic, overcrowded or downright dangerous. For many residents, finding a good home is just a matter of chance. The city of Dallas, cash-strapped though it is, has the power to regulate these homes and eliminate some of the gamble people like Boulware face. Right now, though, the city isn't using that power, and it's unclear if or when it will.

Boulware is a pale woman in her 40s with brown hair and glasses. She's told her story so many times to so many doctors, therapists and caseworkers that all the emotion has drained out of it; she could be talking about the weather. But when she talks about resuming her life away from the boarding home, her smile falters. She looks a little queasy.

"I don't really know," she says. "I'm trying to take it one day at a time. I get bad anxiety. To think much beyond next week for me, even, everything gets bigger and bigger and I get totally freaked out."

Boulware looks around the tiny room, the neatly made beds, her few books in a tidy stack on the floor. She goes quiet for a moment, glancing over at a picture of one of her sons beaming from the dresser. "I'm grateful I'm alive," she says finally. "I'm grateful I have somewhere to go where I feel safe."

If you're mentally ill in this country, chances are better than average that at some point you'll find yourself in an emergency room, a jail cell or a homeless shelter. If you're poor, too, you might not know where you'll go next, after your immediate crisis is over. For many, that next stop is a boarding home.

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Anna Merlan
Contact: Anna Merlan