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.
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.’