Sunday, 01 March 2015

It’s a hoard life

Hoarding is a growing problem which can, eventually, lead to homelessness. Emily Rogers finds out how one home improvement agency is helping with a clearout.

To reach the upstairs bedrooms in Maureen Baxter’s house, the visitor must step over coils of animal faeces on the landing. There are, however, fragrant fresh flowers on the bedside table in the room which belonged to her late mother, whom Maureen cared for here until her death 10 years ago.

This is the contrasting world uncovered in an otherwise very ordinary looking mid-terrace house in Coventry, where 59-year-old Maureen has lived since the age of two. She was never allowed pets while her mother was alive, but now she has two dogs, five cats and five caged birds. And - besides the fetid evidence of this menagerie - a dizzying volume of stuff.

Maureen is one of 12 hoarders currently on the books of Orbit Care & Repair, a Coventry-based home improvement agency, that helps older and vulnerable people remain in their homes by assisting with repairs and adaptations. Hoarding is a problem the team is stumbling upon more and more.

A survey conducted last month by the charity Care and Repair England gives a snapshot of the scale of the problem. Of 40 responding home improvement agencies, 87 per cent have dealt with people they would describe as compulsive hoarders. More than a third have found clutter building up again after they had cleared homes. And crucially, a third have no way of tracking the hoarder’s situation after the first clearance.

Nearly two thirds said they wanted to help hoarders find a way of breaking their habit.

The floor and surfaces in Maureen’s small front room are heaving with dust-caked ornaments. These jostle for space with remnants of everyday life other people might call disposable. Plastic toiletry bottles and disused air fresheners shroud the faces of at least 10 assorted clocks. Costume jewellery drips from surfaces like stalactites. The sofas and chairs are barely visible beneath mountains of clothes and fabrics. The floor is thick with grime. And, among all the clutter, Maureen’s mother peers out from numerous black and white photographs, keeping watch over it all.

Despite the warm spring sun outside, somewhere an electric fire crackles at full power, casting a fuggy haze over the jumble. There are countless dusty mirrors reflecting it all from different angles, adding to the sense of confusion.

Extreme situations
Maureen has been in contact with Orbit Care & Repair since February, when she was referred by the charity National Energy Action because she needed a new heating system and had debt problems. Her house has to be cleared to make way for the heating upgrade, which appears to be acting as an effective carrot in persuading her to co-operate.

Three vanfuls of rubbish have already been removed from the house, which the clearance contractors say needed to happen before they could move around inside. The process threw Maureen into a panicked flurry of running back and forth from the skip to recover things.

She admits the clearout has not been easy. ‘I wanted to cut my nails, but couldn’t find my nail clipper. I can never find anything if people clear up for me,’ she says.

‘Some of the stuff that was precious to me has gone into storage. I’ve got a lovely jewellery box, but it got broken. It looks like nothing to anybody, but it has been there since I was a child, and I don’t want to lose that.’

Hoarding has been in the headlines in recent months because of the extreme situations it can lead to when left untackled, such as lone pensioners found dead beneath piles of festering rubbish.

Maureen could be described as one of the country’s less obvious hoarders. She has no diagnosed medical condition, no contact with social services and the rubbish and filth inside her home have not yet oozed outside, thereby attracting the attention of the local council’s environmental health department.

She works, ironically, as a part-time cleaner, which she juggles with caring for older people, volunteering for an animal charity and stints as an Avon lady. She says she will ‘go mad’ if anyone tries to remove her collection of Avon products.

Kathie Martin, manager of Orbit Care & Repair, says of Maureen’s front room: ‘Mum is still very much here.’ She describes Maureen as someone unable to let go of anything which connects her with her past: this is one of the common triggers for hoarding.

‘Clearance can be distressing for people,’ she explains. ‘It’s very emotive. Sometimes they feel the stuff they’re hoarding is part of them.
‘In the past, we’ve worked towards helping support hoarders to get the repairs and adaptations done, then we’ve had to walk away. Now we
have Julie Haddon, a crisis support worker who provides additional practical and emotional assistance. We could do with two more of her, to be honest.’

Ms Haddon says people like Maureen are often left stranded in ‘no man’s land’ due to the lack of recognition given to hoarding by statutory services such as health and social care.

‘I think a lot of social workers do tend to regard hoarding as a choice,’ she says. ‘But Mr Porter [another of the team’s clients], for example, is happier now than when he was out of control. He sees us as a lifeline.’

Psychologists, too, seem to regard hoarding as something one chooses, rather than an affliction to be taken seriously, Ms Haddon has found.

‘I did write to Mr Porter’s psychologist and got quite a negative response. For another client I struggled to get a psychological assessment. We paid about three visits to a GP, who I think felt I was over-reacting.’

Ms Haddon, whose role is funded by the government’s Supporting People programme, will continue to visit Maureen to help her develop the life skills she needs to ensure the rubbish and clutter does not start to build up again. Ongoing contact is considered essential by the organisation, which won an award for its additional support work in February from Foundations, the national body for home improvement agencies.

Ms Martin argues that this support work plays an important role in preventing homelessness. She believes there are abandoned homes all over the country which hoarders have walked away from because they have become completely inaccessible.

Slowly and surely
Helping hoarders to break the habit would also lighten the load of environmental health officers like Steve Chantler, senior housing enforcement officer at Coventry Council. ‘The problem we were having was, within months of our work [carrying out clearance orders], the situation would be exactly the same,’ he says. ‘We felt as if we were wasting our time.

‘Orbit Care & Repair is like another resource for us. These people are very good, because they’re persistent. They work with hoarders slowly and surely.’

Ms Martin says a national two- or three-year pilot project is needed to find a multi-agency way of tackling hoarding. ‘We need to work with cognitive behaviour specialists,’ she says. ‘We need occupational therapists to come on board with this. In terms of funding, we need some sort of framework and some sort of access to mental health [services].’

Nearly half of the home improvement agencies responding to the recent survey said they would be interested in taking part in such a scheme.

Until then, Maureen dwells on her future. She would like to take in a lodger once her place is sorted out, saying she could do with the company. But on the horizon, another dream looms large. ‘I want to escape in a caravan,’ she says. ‘I’ve never been a traveller, but my dad always used to like coach trips. If I had a friend with me, if I had my dogs, I would be all right.’


The psychologist’s view

‘To a certain degree, we all hoard,’ says Satwant Singh, a nurse consultant in cognitive behavioural therapy. ‘But it becomes a problem when people can’t function in their own homes. So a kitchen can no longer be a place for cooking and a sitting room can no longer be a place for sitting.’

Mr Singh, who works for Newham Primary Care Trust, believes housing officers must wake up to hoarding, which he says can make people homeless. He has taken lawyers on visits to housing associations, trying to persuade them to recognise the problem in individuals and halt their evictions.

Hoarding can be a way of dealing with negative emotions or trauma, or can be connected to beliefs about items being needed or of sentimental or artistic value, explains Mr Singh.

Cognitive behavioural therapy, where individuals use verbal reasoning to help recognise their problems, needs to be refined as a specialist treatment for hoarders, he believes.

Mr Singh, who has set up a specialist support group for hoarders in east London, wants more research into the problem and training for professionals such as social workers and GPs. And he wants the government to introduce ‘streamlined care pathways’ for hoarders.

‘An estimated one per cent of the population are hoarders, but I think it’s higher than that, maybe as much as 10 per cent. We don’t have enough information about it at all.’


Readers' comments (7)

  • Time and time again, housing professionals get very concerned about 'hoarders' - I understand it from a safety perspective - i.e. if there is a serious risk of fire -say papers piled high around a cooker etc... From a mental health perspective however, it is an 'illness', with people feeling extreme anxiety at the thought of even one item being removed from their property. The worker in the first article is a good idea, though i'm not sure how much time she would need to spend with each individual to actually turn them around and prevent future hoarding?? We cannot be with people 24/7 - we need to understand, as housing professionals, why people Hoard in the first place.... some training please?????

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  • If hoarding is not for profit or trade or commercial purposes of some kind, then there is nothing wrong with it and the tenants should not be made feel they are doing anything wrong. Except if it endagers safety or is a health risk, as it has been pointed out. By penalising hoarders who are not creating any risks with evictions, the housing profession might end up creating a whole new set of so-called "services" and problems for people who neither want or need them. Basically if people are happy hoarding and not posing any risks let them hoard.

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  • My dad was a hoarder, filling the garden up with apple boxes full of rusty items; stocking an entire building joined to our house but bigger than it with obselete technology and broken televisions that he might get around to fixing "one day" or thought had value that other people did not see.
    Even in the house, cupboards and drawers were filled with things he did not need. There were papers everywhere and suspicious cardboard boxes and carrier bags lurked in the dining room. His 'job' as a book dealer and junk shop owner (falling into bankruptcy twice) gave him the excuse he needed to spend half his time nosing furtively (and it was furtively) around skip, tips and second-hand shops.
    Being poor in a rich neighbourhood, I felt very ashamed of all this and avoided bringing people I didn't know well back to my house and having to suffer awed comments from the people I did.
    My mum threatened to leave him over it, but didn't and he would become guilty and defensive about it when normally he was quite placid.
    My dad is luckily just about old enough to stop his major activities, having moved the entire contents of said "garage" all the way from Sussex to Dorset over a period of 18 months for it to sit in another building, mouldering still.
    But my life was significantly affected by my dad's problem with hoarding, which he never recognised as such and I, with an on-off drink problem, see the guilt-shame cycle, the addictive quality, the sense of dealing with helplessness, as really quite similar. And yet folks above do not seem to see it as something pertaining to mental illness as anxiety, OCD, etc., are.
    Well let's see them live in a house with it.

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  • Well, my dad was hoarder too, and we were poor amongst poor and I had a fantastic childhood with all the things he was bringing in and out... was a magical world... It is only when I became a adult that I got embarassed by some better off people criticism about him... And it took me a long while to realise that these better off people were trying to make me see my dad through their eyes rather mine, so I started to tell each and everyone of them to mind their own business if 'they' had a problem with it.

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  • I read this article with much interest as I have experienced this problem first hand. My home was always 'just so' anyone could walk in at any time and comment on how immaculate it always was. however, I started to spend most of my life at Mums house as she suffered from Alzheimers and I cared for her for 5 years untill I became too ill myself with chronic arthritis and social services insisted she go into full time care.Mums house had to be sold to pay the fees of over £400 per week.I became very depressed as I started to empty the house for this purpose after all it was the family home where I grew up and was a big part of my life and Mums pride and joy. I started to feel very depressed and dreadfully guilty and felt that some things I just couldn't part with and as I lived near - by started to fill my spare rooms with things from Mums rather than throw them out--and thats how it all started.
    After mum died my pains got worse, my depression got worse and I began to act irrationly--buying things for comfort even though I didn't have room for them or indeed the money I carried on an started piling them up and filling any available nook and cranny with all sorts of things and just started not throwing anything away. No one realised this was happening as I hid my depression well and if I was having a bad day just put it down to pain that most people knew I had problems coping with.I kept the downstairs rooms presetable so no one had a clue there was anything wrong and that upstairs I could hardly move for clutter. but there was something very wrong , I was more ill than I realised and can't quite remember how it all got out of hand only that it had happened over 3yrs since Mam died.It was only when I knew the housing association were coming to put new windows in that I broke down and realised that I needed help.
    Friends and family were absolutely amazed at the state I was in they had no idea--I had hidden my illness so well-- I am now taking medication and having counselling with a clinical physcologist I have cleared out the 'clutter' and now have my home 'back' that I can be proud of and ask anyone into-- even upstairs
    I feel that this is a big problem that needs to be addressed and agree with the article that more help should be available where vulnerable people could have someone to talk to about these problems before they get out of control-sometimes you are too ashamed to tell family or friends what a state you have got into and would rather deal with an independant person like a welfare officer that may be available through an R.S.L
    I am slowly but surely getting back on my feet and maybe one day I feel I could perhaps help out in such an organisation if one were to be set up in my area

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  • I am undertaking some research into housing and hoarding/hoarders as described above. I would be grateful if anyone is interested in participating in the research (interview) to contact me.

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  • What is it with all these people who seem to feel they have some sort of right to order other people how to live their lives?

    What someone does inside their own four walls is none of anyone else's business. If they want to hoard stuff, that's up to them. I absolutely despise these interfering nosey parkers who think that just because they wouldn't want to live like that they have some sort of right to try and prevent anyone else living like that.

    It's high time people in this country learned to mind their own business and stop trying to interfere in other people's private lives.

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