One in 25 people in Greater Victoria is affected by hoarding, or having excessive clutter.
Thanks to a team in Victoria, help is just a phone call away.
“We estimate that there are approximately 11,000 homes affected by hoarding in the region, so we know that a comprehensive approach to addressing mental health and community safety can help to make a difference,” said Madelaine Ross, clinical coordinator of mental health services at Island Health.
Formed by the Fire Prevention Officers Association, HEAT is a conglomerate of organizations, including local fire departments, Island Health, SPCA and various non-profit organizations.
“From the point of view of fire departments, when you have so much property in a small area, we call that a fuel load. If a fire does occur, it’s very hard to put out because you have that much more fuel load in there,” said Megan Sabell, inspector with the Victoria Fire Department, adding that the fire will also burn much hotter and faster. “It’s really dangerous for a firefighter to try and enter a suite like that.”
There are also safety risks for the tenants, including making it difficult for first responders to get to them if they are having a medical emergency.
“Sometimes when there’s excessive clutter, it can [also] attract pests like mice and rats and then you start getting feces from those and there’s other diseases that they carry which can contribute to health risks,” said Sabell.
When someone phones the HEAT hotline, Sabell said they will first determine which area of Greater Victoria the person lives in and then direct them to the appropriate fire department. Then the fire department will speak with the tenant about their situation.
“A lot of what we do is education, just explaining to them the risks associated with it.”
After the initial phone call, fire department representatives will go to the residence and do an initial safety inspection.
“We’ll make sure they have a working smoke alarm, check to see . . . that there’s nothing against any of their baseboard heaters [or] if they’re using space heaters that they’re using them safely.”
Once any immediate safety concerns are dealt with, Sabell said they will assign the tenant with some daily tasks. For example, taking out a bag of recycling every day.
Then, the fire
department will conduct re-inspections.
“In some cases we do have some volunteers that can come in and help with the sorting and taking things out,” said Sabell. “Every case is different.”
Although helping tenants clear out their clutter is important, Sabell said the best thing to do is to get therapy.
“We can take your garbage away, but then that person is still there with the need or the want to keep collecting. Unless we can help them deal with that part, it’s just going to accumulate again,” said Sabell. “It’s a matter of getting to the mental reason for the desire behind the action.
For this reason, HEAT is working on creating a peer support group.
“Our main goal is the safety of the citizens,” said Sabell. “We don’t want to cause them any distress or stress, because they’re probably under enough stress as it is.”