The Green, Green Grass of Home

Sometimes the grass really is greener on the other side of the fence. Working in the field of chronic mental illness, I encounter clients dissatisfied with their housing on average of once a week. The majority of my clients reside in boarding homes, both licensed and unlicensed. I am using the State of Texas’ definition of a boarding home as a facility which houses three or more persons with disabilities or elderly persons who are unrelated to the owner…and provides community meals, light housework, meal preparation, transportation, grocery shopping, money management, laundry services, or assistance with self-administration of medication but does not provide personal care services to those persons.

Complaints I hear range from roommate bickering to neglect and abuse cases that required reporting to authorities.


Issues within boarding homes have not been restricted to a singular social worker’s clients. Dallas/Ft. Worth has seen similar struggles including unclean and poorly supervised boarding homes. A 2007 assessment of 276 homes found that one in three required intervention. 2006 testimony in El Paso cited sixteen men with mental illness living in 500 square feet with a single bathroom.


The state of Texas passed legislation in 2009 creating the Texas Boarding House Model Standards in order to ensure that housing was safe and adequate and to reduce client experiences with abuse, neglect, and exploitation.


Despite such legislation being enacted, only five major cities in Texas have adopted their own ordinances regulating boarding home facilities. These cities include Austin, Dallas/Ft. Worth, El Paso, Houston, and San Antonio. Even with ordinances being in place, loopholes and evasion persist. Many boarding homes remain unlicensed and others remain out of compliance with building codes. This has resulted in deadly incidents such as a fire in a San Antonio boarding home which left four of thirteen residents dead.  Houston struggles to identify the number of boarding homes that exist in their community in addition to unresolved questions on regulating them. Such living conditions persist due to lack of options.


Texas ranks 50th in the nation for mental health funding. The number of beds in hospital facilities has rapidly declined in recent years resulting in persons being discharged from facilities at a faster rate and often without a home to return. Combined with the limited financial assistance persons with mental illness receive results in limited housing options. Enter the boarding home, often the last resort for housing when people with mental illness face homelessness.


The majority of boarding homes are clustered around the major cities in Texas, which have developed governing ordinances. However, boarding homes do exist and have increased in rural areas. Research has resulted in little information regarding oversight in rural communities.  Despite the existence of ordinances, many are poorly enforced or contain extensive time allotments to allow a house to bring their facility up to code. Alternatively many homes are grandfathered out of meeting current building codes based on what year the facility was established and what building codes required at that time. Lack of enforcement doesn’t come from a callous place, but rather the same that created this situation: limited mental health resources.


If we continue to uphold the ideals of a least-restrictive-environment without proper support or funding unscrupulous boarding homes in our communities will continue to increase. Exploitation and neglect will persist among our clients with mental illness until the state or our individual communities take up the torch of enforcement.


When exploring this issue from a social justice perspective, people often turn to the idea that some home is better than homelessness. However, I argue that this is flawed. Should we continue to debate the lesser of evils or should we take it upon ourselves to seek better solutions?


Fatal boarding home fire by Photo By John Davenport/San Antonio Express-News

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