DALLAS – For nearly ten years, Dianne Hinkley has lived in a small bedroom in a dingy, five-bedroom house she shares with strangers. Three people here use the living room, kitchen and two bathrooms.
At 61 years old, Hinkley says she has no close family and nowhere else to go. Even after she says one of her roommates savagely attacked her last year, she stayed. The roommate was arrested.
A few months ago, state inspectors found the home’s owner to be operating without a license. When asked why Hinkley likes living here, she seems stumped.
“Well, I really don’t know why,” she finally offered. “It’s the best place of all I’ve seen.”
Her boarding home is owned by Ollie Searcy, 62, who lives next door. He’s a friendly man who retired from the postal service, and admits the business is a challenge.
“I’m going to end up losing money," he said. “I don’t have enough people in here. I can’t advertise.”
He showed News 8 inside the home, proud of how tidy he says he keeps it. He charges $529 a month for room and board. His tenants usually pay him with the money they get from Social Security checks and other benefits.
“A lot of these people like these types of houses, because it’s like a house,” Searcy said.
Many of his tenants come straight from shelters or mental health institutions.
His boarding house is one of at least 327 group homes tracked by the City of Dallas. Many hold the old, disabled, or the mentally ill in sometimes squalid conditions.
A city report found 26 facilities in Dallas with “significant violations.”
“They are absolutely filthy,” said Jane Metzinger with Mental Health America of Greater Dallas. “I have heard police officers say they wouldn’t put your enemy’s dog there. They can be terrible.”
Operators have been known to allow hoarding or cram multiple bunk beds in a single room. Critics complain the industry goes largely unchecked. Boarding homes, unlike nursing homes or assisted living centers, don’t have to be licensed, or sometimes even permitted.
“There’s no regulation at state, federal, county, city level,” Metzinger said. “There’s no regulation whatsoever.”
In Texas, regulators with the Department of Aging and Disability Services only step in when a group home holds more than four people and provides personal care – such as grooming or dispensing medication.
Even then, many facilities fly below the radar.
“You and I could go rent a house and put in four bunk beds in each bedroom, and we open it up!” Metzinger said. “The ones who provide the poorer service make the most money.”
Meaning, she says, boarding homes aren’t found in just houses, but large facilities.
Sylvia Hendrix, 59, has been running the El Shaddai group residential facility on East Ledbetter Drive in Dallas since 1989. Years ago, its sprawling building used to hold a nursing home. Now, it’s simply a group home.
With 31 rooms, Hendrix says she can house up to 60 people. Though she currently only has about 20 residents.
“I only want one person in each room,” she said. “It stops the conflict… I have less stress on me.”
It can be difficult to tell apart a nursing home from a boarding house. Gary Major assumed he was putting his 72-year-old mother into an assisted-living center when he checked her into Seagoville Haven in 2006.
The 65-room building at one point housed dozens of disabled residents, city records show. Major’s budget was tight and the staff seemed equipped to handle his mother’s paranoid schizophrenia.
Yet, the owners, Edwin and Ruby Shields of DeSoto, never obtained a state license to operate an assisted-living center. The building was simply a large boarding house.
Even so, various social agencies continued to refer patients to Seagoville Haven for months in late 2005, even though the city alleges it was operating illegally the entire time, according to court papers.
“They gave me the impression it was a nursing, assisted-living facility,” Major said. “The set-up; the staff; they promised three adequate meals, and none of it proved to be true. I regret every minute of it. Every minute she stayed there.”
After years of fighting the city over code violations, Seagoville Haven suddenly shut down in January. The residents were moved to other boarding homes in Dallas.
“I entrusted them to take care of my mother,” Major said. “I think she suffered tremendously.”
Edwin Shields denied any wrongdoing, and in court documents accused the city of discrimination.
“We’ve done everything we could do,” he told News 8 last month. “They did not want anyone in their town that was mentally or physically disadvantaged.”
After years of complaints about boarding homes, the City of Dallas is considering cracking down. Dallas Councilmember Scott Griggs has introduced an ordinance that would require boarding homes to be permitted and establish basic guidelines.
“We want to set a standard of what’s expected of the owner,” he said. “Our intent is to create a minimum set of standards and expectations.”
The proposed ordinance, which is working its way through the city’s Housing Committee, is full of detailed rules, ranging from forcing owners to disclose accidents, to requiring clean bed linens, to regulating the space between beds.
Griggs hopes to start enforcement by October.
“It’s needed very badly,” said Metzinger, the advocate for mentally ill. “It’s very difficult right now to find a boarding home that meets these minimum standards.”
Demetra Donaldson likes to think she already meets those standards. She’s about to open her fourth boarding home in Dallas, and boasts clean properties that always have a paid manager on duty.
“I’m excited about the new ordinances,” she said. “You have to have that when you have businesses that are operating sub-par.”
Yet the new laws will add to the city’s workload.
A city study shows bringing boarding homes under city supervision would require 18 more employees at an additional cost of $1.3 million a year. Though Griggs feels the costs can be brought down or covered by fees forced on boarding homes.
“That seems a little high,” he said.
Some operators argue the city already has enough rules in place. The buildings still must meet city code. Dallas inspectors visited 176 homes last year.
“For them to investigate - fine!” said Searcy, who owns a South Dallas property. “But there’s rules already in place!”