It took the police 10 hours to find Marie Rose, buried under clothes amid the dishes, boxes and debris which crammed every room in her flat, from floor to ceiling. The 62-year-old had suffocated under piles of clothes while looking for the telephone.
Her case made the Network news in her home town of Seattle in the USA. Though extreme, it is not as unusual as the TV reporters may have imagined. Take the case of John James Jones from Aberystwyth, in Wales, whose body was unearthed, buried under a pile of waste at his flat. Police claimed 4.2 tons of ‘material’ was later removed from his bedroom and landing alone.
Even if they don’t plumb these depraved depths, vile, stinking and rubbish stacked houses are not unheard of in my local authority. Since we rarely carry out home visits, it is usually our maintenance contractors who stumble into the mire and refuse to work there.
Housing officers get upset about filth. Especially when tenants don’t seem to understand that dirt is a problem. They are ‘our’ houses, we tell them, and they need to shape up.
We all have theories, but no one claims to know for sure why some tenants behave like this. In the end, most of my colleagues put it down to laziness, ignorance or lack of discipline.
Holding back my nausea while heaving 100 bin bags full of filth from a flat recently, it occurred to me that blaming the tenants isn’t always the right approach.
Worse rubbish remains in this flat; the tenant appears indifferent and we are threatening eviction. Yet, if you met ‘Mrs B’ on the street or in the shops, you would have no inkling of the stomach churning smell in her home, the dirt encrusted bathroom or the blackened worktops where the dishes sport ancient cobwebs.
She is well turned out and doesn’t carry the house odour. Her manner is polite and entirely normal. Yet, while she knows we think her house is unacceptably dirty, she either can’t or won’t do anything about it.
So, what is going on in Mrs B’s head? Should the housing department be helping her to sort herself out - or punishing her. Please don’t misunderstand. We are not a stick waving, tenant bashing council. We have tenancy support officers. In this case, they have been working with Mrs B for months - but while verbal co-operation is always forthcoming, she does not act on her words.
Root of the problem
Mrs B has already crossed that hazy line, where housing management moves from support into eviction mode. But is there another way? Wouldn’t it be better to tackle the symptoms rather the causes? And if so, what are the roots of the problem for people like her?
A psychologist friend has pointed me towards some research carried out in the US, into compulsive hoarding. Buried Treasures, written by David. F. Tolin, Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee seeks to get inside the heads of compulsive clutterers - literally.
By taking brain scans of hoarders, while they made decisions about whether to keep or dump household items, the researchers found increased activity in the area of the brain where decisions are made. Non-hoarders didn’t show the same level of activity, suggesting to Dr Tolin and his colleagues that the rubbish collectors were thoroughly stressed by having to reach a decision to throw anything away.
The research only describes the phenomenon, of course. It doesn’t explain why certain individuals are more prone to hoarding. Let alone why they seem oblivious to dirty, smelly and downright dangerous surroundings.
But there are theories about this, too. It seems the clutter may be mental as well as physical and, according to my psychologist friend, the patient must choose to get better. Just as the clinically obese must commit to losing weight.
Psychologists see lack of interest in cleanliness as one symptom of many other illnesses. These include depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and obsessive compulsive disorder,
But we are housing officers, not shrinks. Our tenancy support workers don’t diagnose the tenants; they try to help them stop their dysfunctional behaviour. Quite often they fail and eviction is the consequence. The ‘dirty’ tenant moves on and becomes somebody else’s problem.
A better solution?
I am not advocating that we add another set of tasks to our workload. We have enough already. But perhaps there should be wider options for referring those who live in filthy homes for help?
‘They don’t know any better, if they have been brought up like that,’ is a common refrain. I am not sure I agree. People from dirty homes don’t necessarily live that way, when they get a place of their own. And people who grow up in clean homes can fall into bad habits.
Not all of these people have medical problems - some really are bone idle. But for the mentally ill, we need better liaison with the medical and social services. As things stand, we can’t refer Mrs B to anyone, because she hasn’t asked for help. There are no children to consider, so the social services department is not interested - chronic disorganisation is not a medical diagnosis.
Consider though, the time - and money - wasted in dealing with these cases. Imagine too, how few of them actually come to light; the tip of a stinking, black iceberg. There is plenty of good practice guidance, listing legal remedies for landlords wanting to rid themselves of these problematic people. But there is next to nothing in the manuals about helping them to overcome their mysterious habits.
Inside Housing’s anonymous columnist is a senior housing officer