Boxes, old clothes, newspapers, empty cans, food scraps and animal waste. Blocked doorways and windows. So much clutter a human being can barely move around.
These are just a few of the things found in residences tackled by the Fairfax County Interagency Hoarding Committee.
The committee, more commonly known as the Hoarding Task Force, responds and works to resolve hoarding cases in the county, and there are more than most residents might think.
From 2008 to 2010, there were 413 cases of hoarding in Fairfax County. Officials responded to 128 cases in 2010, down from 146 in 2009 and 139 in 2008.
According to a Johns Hopkins University Study, up to 4 percent of a community’s general population may have a tendency for hoarding.
“What’s seen on TV shows – elderly ladies shut up in their houses – is kind of a myth,” said Mike Congleton, chair of the task force and manager in the Department of Code Compliance. “There’s no pattern. We have extremely wealthy people in these situations. We have middle income and moderate-income people. The more money one has, the more they can buy.”
Who reports hoarding?
More often than not, hoarding cases are reported by family members or loved ones, Congleton said. Neighbors also call the county if they notice something strange, but not all properties home to hoarding are obvious.
“A lot of times, the outside of the house is immaculate,” he said. “It’s [spread] all over the county. There’s not one special area; there’s not one special group. The bigger the house, the more space you’ve got fill up.”
More than 15 agencies participate on the task force, including the Department of Code Compliance, the Fire and Rescue Department, the Department of Family Services, the Community Services Board and Department of Health.
When the Department of Code Compliance gets a report, they’ll send an investigator to confirm the case. But not everyone is inviting.
“If there is evidence that there is a hoarding situation going on, under certain circumstances we can get an administrative search warrant,” Congleton said. “But basically, if they don’t answer the door or they don’t let us in, there may be nothing we can do about it.”
If a hoarding situation can be properly identified, the task force then coordinates a solution, whether it be intervention from Adult or Child Protective Services or mental health support from the Community Services Board.
Even though hoarding is a mental illness, Congleton didn’t believe that popular reality television shows depicting hoarding were exploitative. Rather, he thought they raised awareness.
“I don’t have any statistics, but I think the number of complaints has gone up slightly because of those,” he said.
As somebody who has walked through the site of a hoarding case, Congleton said he felt deep empathy for the person.
“It’s a mental health issue, and it’s not like they’re doing anything intentionally to harm themselves or anybody else, and you want to assist them,” he said. “We’re empathetic, but we need to do our job.”
When clutter becomes dangerous
The Mayo Clinic defines hoarding as “the excessive collection of items, along with the inability to discard them … [which] often creates such cramped living conditions that homes may be filled to capacity, with only narrow pathways winding through stacks of clutter.”
Congleton said that people often confuse hoarding with simple disorganization.
“In many occasions, what you may consider a hoarding situation is really just a clutter situation,” he said. “What we’re concerned about is when the accumulation of goods impacts the basic ability of the person to live safely in the house.”
In some instances, the accumulation of goods in a hoarder’s home makes the space unlivable and potentially deadly.
The task force was established in 1998 after four homeless people died in a burning abandoned house. They had been using an open fire in a dwelling that was so littered with debris – including papers and other goods – that safe entry and exit were difficult. The clutter and open flame made for a deadly combination.
Hoarding is a complicated condition and there isn’t one particular medical cause of the illness.
According to the International OCD Foundation, “people who hoard form intense emotional attachments to a wider variety of objects than do people who don’t hoard. These attachments take the form of attaching human-like qualities to inanimate objects, feeling grief at the prospect of getting rid of objects, and deriving a sense of safety from being surrounded by possessions.”
Depression, anxiety and “generally high levels of perfectionism” can be other catalysts. According to the foundation, some people who hoard suffer from a belief that to throw items out would be wasteful, or that the items they are collecting will help them hold onto their memories.
“There really is no one definitive cause that we’re aware of,” said Barry Barr, a supervisor in the county’s Adult Protective Services (APS) department. “Often times it is related to some kind of mental health issues. Sometimes it’s alcoholism, trauma, [or] dementia.”
Congleton said the task force looks for a number of things when evaluating the site of a hoarding case, including blocked doorways and hallways, stress on the foundations of the dwelling, and combustible materials. These factors create danger for both the resident and the public safety employees whose job it is to help them.
“Every fire department in the country has a standard protocol procedure when they go to a house fire,” he said. “They all attack them same way. If a house is filled with combustibles, it’s going to burn differently.”
He also said that a fully equipped firefighter in pounds of gear was going to have difficulty getting through packed hallways in an emergency.
“It’s a hazard to the public safety people and it’s a major hazard to the people living there,” he said. “That’s when [the task force] become[s] involved. We’ll work with the individual to make sure there’s a clear path to all the doors and windows.”
To contact the Hoarding Task Force or to learn more, go to www.fairfaxcounty.gov/code/hoarding.