Group Home$ in Au$tin

A few weeks ago, I was standing outside on my driveway watching police cruisers, EMS, ambulances and the fire department descend – once again – on the group home backing up to Pearce Middle School down the street. This is not an isolated event, as I can tell you anecdotally. On the official side, the Austin Police Department responded to 44 calls to that address in 2012. That’s almost once a week – and doesn’t count visits by EMS and fire, as they are handled through a different call system.

Group homes housing the mentally ill and substance abusers are largely unregulated in Texas unless they administer medications. The city requires that basic sanitation requirements be met if the home serves food. Beyond that, the state gave cities the authority to regulate group homes in 2009. Legislators even required that model regulations be issued by the state for cities to use if they like.

The Dallas Morning News ran an entire series on the varying quality of group homes in that city – from horrid to above average, helping spur the city to adopt an ordinance establishing some regulations. The Texas City Attorneys Association recommends group home ordinances. San Antonio was only stirred to wakefulness on the issue after a fire killed a number of group home residents.

Austin? Caring, compassionate, progressive Austin?

Are we waiting for a similar tragedy? A similar shaming media investigation? A massive lawsuit?

According to Austin officials, the development and implementation of regulations is underway – four years after they were given that authority and counting. (In fact, a woman in my neighborhood, Joan Bartz, has been highly active in trying to get the city to ensure the safety of the residents and neighbors of these homes. She was instrumental in working on the bill giving cities authority to regulate group homes.)

It was recently reported that group home owners in Dallas are running scared from registering with the city – maybe they don’t want their money bags inspected for fraud or unsafe living conditions. I’ve had a couple of the residents ask me to call 911 so they could get their disability checks from the owner of the home. The supervision at the home is light, my wife and I are regularly propositioned for something or another and I see residents sitting at bus stops on Cameron Road begging for money. I pressed charges on one mentally ill woman from the home after she came into my house – not because I was frightened, but because I knew she’d be better off out of that house (and likely moved to what I hope is a better home). A true home does not lead to the above.

This is a vulnerable population that’s being exploited, and the city of Austin has yet to do anything about it.

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