Working as an inspector with the Victoria Fire Department, Megan Sabell was shocked the first time she responded to a call about hoarding.
The front door of the tiny apartment wouldn’t open entirely and she couldn’t see the floor. The kitchen and shower were packed with bags of garbage and there was barely any access to the toilet.
Boxes, papers and clothes were stacked almost to the ceiling, causing Sabell much concern.
“I couldn’t even see the heaters. I didn’t know what was under there if something were to happen, and it was very warm in there,” said Sabell. “You get overwhelmed because you want to help, but you don’t know where to begin and that’s where it gets hard.”
Hoarding disorder is a mental condition defined as the excessive collection of items, along with the inability to discard them. An estimated one in 25 people in Greater Victoria have some level of hoarding behaviour and about 11,000 homes have a hoarding problem. But until recently, there’s been little in the way of an organized response to the issue.
In 2012, the Hoarding Education and Action Team (HEAT) team was created to provide a unified network that would support the increasing reports of hoarding in the community. The reports are primarily received through the city’s HEAT phone line, which is hosted by the fire department and monitored daily by Sabell.
Sabell receives calls from landlords, friends, family, neighbours or social and commercial agencies. Calls to the hotline have increased to 161 in 2015, and range from information on peer support, how to help an individual, the risks associated with hoarding and a potential hoarding concern.
Twenty-four confirmed cases of hoarding were identified in 2015. This year the number sits at 25.
Whenever Sabell responds to a home impacted by hoarding, she assesses how severe the case is on a clutter rating scale and tries to establish a good relationship with the individual in order to move forward. Then there’s the mammoth task of removing the mountain of clutter.
Limited companies work with extreme clutter cases, but their fees are up to twice the cost of a regular cleaning company and may not include disposal. To assist those with limited financial resources, HEAT has been dependent on volunteer services from a local community church that was also provided sensitivity training. But the decluttering process is very overwhelming, noted Sabell, and the group decided to help the community through another venue. The Cool Aid Casual Labour Pool is now used for some cases, but some are simply beyond the ability of the workers and require specially trained personnel, like one case in the West Shore.
“The individual was living in a mobile home and they used Depends (diapers) and things like that. They were just all over the house,” said Sabell, noting HEAT appreciates its volunteers. “The mental side of it is very tiring. You are there spending your own time trying to help an individual, going through items with them that they don’t want to let go of. Once help is finally there, they have a hard time parting.”
According to Island Health psychologist Dr. Eric Ochs, there are various reasons why some people’s living space is slowly taken over by their possessions. Sometimes genetics play a role and a person’s upbringing, along with other problems like decision making, being organized and issues with emotional attachment.
People with hoarding disorder can still function relatively normal in the outside world, but Ochs said it’s a large problem to solve on their own. Even after a home is decluttered, the disorder doesn’t go away unless the proper therapy and support system is in place.
“They have a very strong attachment to a lot of things and have a real hard time just throwing it out. It’s a process you’re always trying to keep on top of,” said Ochs, noting the disorder is highly stigmatized and didn’t even exist as a diagnosable condition until a few years ago. Still, roughly half the people diagnosed won’t admit they have a problem.
“They just cope day to day. They have a lack of insight that can be quite profound.”
A hoarding peer support group meets the second and fourth Wednesday of every month at the Royal Jubilee Hospital at 3 p.m. For more information call 250-361-0227.
For the first part of the hoarding series, click here.