When Penny Stone of the Victoria Humane Society walked into the apartment of a man who wanted to surrender 20 cats, “the stench was horrific” — and he had miscounted. In fact, he had 34 black cats.
Like people who fill their houses with possessions and lose track of how much they have, he was hoarding. It’s a hidden, but surprisingly common, problem.
An estimated one in 25 people exhibit some level of hoarding behaviour and there are about 11,000 homes with a hoarding problem in the capital region, according to Island Health.
Hoarding has become such a significant problem it inspired the creation of Island Health’s Hoarding Education and Action Team five years ago.
HEAT is a collaborative project operated by partners including fire departments, bylaw enforcement, non-profit groups, animal-welfare organizations and volunteers.
Its goals include creating a safe environment for hoarders, helping people stay in their homes, and providing support and resources for clients.
Apart from psychological ramifications and health risks, hoarding poses serious safety hazards for hoarders and those around them.
“It’s a grave concern when you have excessive clutter in your living space,” says Megan Sabell, the Victoria Fire Department inspector who sits on the task force.
“Items can fall on [hoarders] and they have to be made aware of that excessive fuel load. When you fill an apartment with clutter, it can get very hot, very fast.”
When HEAT hears from someone who suspects a hoarding situation exists, fire-prevention officers will attempt to do a safety inspection.
Staff will assess hazards — ensuring an occupant has a working smoke alarm, heating sources have sufficient clearance and stoves aren’t being used as storage cabinets, for instance.
“There is that educational component that is so important,” says Sabell.
There have been 72 intake calls to the HEAT hotline (250-361-0227) regarding hoarding situations so far this year, double the number received by this time last year, she said.
Most hoarders tend to be older, she says, partly because they come from an era where they learned not to be wasteful.
“Is it impeding your daily functionality?” Sabell asks. “Someone might have a bedroom so full of boxes and books and clothes they can no longer sleep, and the room isn’t being used what it was designed for.”
Having a person admit he has a problem is one of the first hurdles to overcome, she says.
“Most people who have this disorder suffer from shame and don’t want to be judged,” says Sabell, who typically receives calls from concerned friends, family, neighbours, landlords and social agencies. That is one reason that no hoarders would agree to be interviewed for this story.
Because most hoarders prefer to remain anonymous, the peer-support model HEAT offers has proven productive, Sabell says.
Its drop-in support group for hoarders, facilitated by clinical psychologist Eric Ochs, meets at 3 p.m. on the second and fourth Wednesday of each month at Royal Jubilee Hospital’s Eric Martin Pavilion.
Participants can share their struggles and strategies in a supportive environment and get tips and advice from peers and Island Health clinical staff when necessary.
While collecting items that can create clutter is not uncommon, serious hoarding is a mental-health disorder that afflicts five per cent of the population, says Ochs.
There’s a big difference between collecting items and being unable to part with possessions that have accumulated at the expense of living space.
“Hoarding disorder is a recent addition to the diagnostic pantheon,” notes Ochs, who says it’s about time hoarding, previously identified as an obsessive-compulsive disorder symptom, was talked about more.
“It has become one of the biggest mental-health diagnoses out there. Depression’s the biggest mental-health problem, but we’re talking about that now because it’s common and we’ve tried to destigmatize it.”
A telltale sign of hoarding’s enormity is the increase in the number of self-help books, films and TV shows such as Hoarders, the A&E reality series critics have accused of exploiting the hoarders it purports to help.
Ochs isn’t a fan of shows about “shaming and turning the most tragic instances into entertainment.”
A notable exception is Store, Cami Kidder’s compassionate documentary about people whose attachment to their “stuff” is so intense they pay to have it stored rather than get rid of it.
Kidder, whose quirky film made its world première at the Victoria Film Festival, was shocked to learn that Los Angeles was a mecca of self-storage complexes when she moved there from New England.
After interviewing packrats during her travels across the U.S., she gained deeper insight into why many people are so connected to their belongings yet reluctant to talk about their hoarding habits.
Said one self-storage facility manager she interviewed: “Why would you put a $99 futon in a storage locker just because you got it in college and there was some great love on it?”
One challenge for mental-health professionals, says Ochs, is that many people who have this highly stigmatized disorder are in denial.
“A lot of people with HD don’t really want our help,” he says. “ ‘That’s your opinion,’ they’ll say. ‘I like my stuff.’ ”
Ochs says that, in terms of treatment, hoarding disorder could be compared to Type 1 diabetes, which can be managed so patients can lead relatively normal lives.
“We can in some cases manage hoarding disorder so it doesn’t cause a huge amount of risk, but we don’t ‘cure’ it.”
Ideally, Ochs would like to see politicians and the health-care system provide more resources to deal with this growing problem, and funding for some form of cognitive-behavioural therapy.
“Treatment is something that requires so much time and money we don’t currently offer,” he says. “We spend millions treating people with cancer. Why shouldn’t we spend money on hoarding?”
Ochs has seen it all — from a situation where someone owned three homes — “two just for holding stuff” — to a homeless person’s shopping-cart. “Hoarding is everywhere.”
While books, magazines, newspapers, coupons, clothing and food are commonly hoarded items, animal hoarding has also become a significant problem, says Stone, founder of the Victoria Humane Society.
While it’s most prevalent in outlying areas such as Metchosin, Sooke and the Cowichan Valley, cat and small-animal hoarding in Victoria remains problematic, she says.
“People have a couple of cats they love and then, when they have kittens, they’re terrified no one will care about them as much as they do,” she says, explaining what motivates some animal hoarders.
“Pretty soon those kittens have kittens, and on and on it goes. They fear no one else can care for those new ones like they do, but pretty soon theirs aren’t getting the care because there are simply too many.”
Interventions by well-meaning family and friends to help a hoarder who might be at risk of eviction or having a child removed from a hazardous environment can be an exasperating, time-consumiing process.
Trying to lure a hoarder out of his house so you can de-clutter it can cause anguish, which is why it’s important to use available resources and develop sound strategies through therapy and support systems, Ochs says.
If you’ve been wrestling with clutter in your own life, or know someone you suspect might be a hoarder, help is at hand.
An information session on recognizing and dealing with hoarding will take place Wednesday, April 5, from 3-5 p.m. at Silver Threads in Saanich Centre, 286 Hampton Rd.
The event is designed to help answer questions for family and loved ones, building managers and professionals dealing with a possible hoarding situation.
Tips will also be provided to help participants learn how to access and move forward using resources such as the Hoarding Education and Action Team of Island Health.
If you’d like to do some networking and enjoy some refreshments, arrive at 2:30 p.m.
While admission is free, registration is required by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.