Two housing associations explain how their work to curb hoarding is delivering positive and impressive results. Photography by Getty
Challenge: Tenant unable to bathe because of severe hoarding problem
Solution: Trained housing officer engages with tenant
Outcome: Tenant’s quality of life is much improved
Bill’s neighbours refused to check their gas meters because of the revolting, musky smell coming his housing association flat in Hackney, east London.
Instead Jemma King, home services manager at housing association Southern Housing Group (SHG), had to take the readings for them.
“They couldn’t go down to the cupboard near his flat because they felt like they would be physically sick,” she says.
Concerned about Bill’s welfare, Ms King knocked on his door. Bill let Southern Housing staff in, but his flat was full of so much stuff they had to squeeze through narrow gaps to enter the rooms.
“There was no space to move at all. It was from the floor to ceiling. In his bath there were 10 or 15 bikes. There was stuff everywhere; materials, full bin bags, empty boxes and papers,” she recalls.
The source of the smell was obvious: Bill hadn’t been able to wash for six months. Nor was there anywhere for him to sleep.
“The bedroom was so packed he couldn’t get in or turn on the light. He had a cupboard he sat in and an area on the sofa where he slept,” she says.
Ms King didn’t rush to judge. Instead the Capsticks hoarding project, which had been providing training to SHG, put her in touch with one of its hoarding specialists, Heather Matuozzo. She advised Ms King to be patient and work with him to clear the belongings he wasn’t using every day.
“Heather put me in a different mindset. Sometimes in housing you just think of taking action. But her approach is to focus the person and try to understand them,” says Ms King.
“The bedroom was so packed he couldn’t get in.”
Ms Matuozzo accompanied her on the next visit and spent a long time talking with Bill. She discovered he had made his living as an artist. He only started hoarding when his partner left.
In the bathroom, Bill – who has schizophrenia – showed them an original Banksy. The Bristol-based graffiti artist had given it to him in exchange for one of his pieces in the 1990s.
Under bags of rubbish and boxes they found all kinds of beautiful works of art. “In the hallway there was a complete dragon that had been welded from different scraps of metal,” says Ms King. “There were absolutely fantastic sculpted wooden tables. There were paintings everywhere.”
Bill agreed to start clearing his flat and it is now in a much better state. He can use his bath and sleep fully stretched out on his sofa.
He is even planning on selling his art on a stall on the estate.
Challenge: Hoarding is a growing problem for the housing association
Solution: Training helps lead to a personalised approach to solving the issue
Outcome: Housing association able to more capably assist hoarders
Carla Santagostino, a neighbourhood housing officer with housing association Sovereign, has seven hoarding cases in her 1,000-home patch in Blandford and Shaftesbury in Dorset.
“It’s a growing problem. We’ve had properties where we haven’t entered for a long time. There is often a fire hazard, not just for hoarders but also for other residents or neighbours,” she says.
She tends to be alerted by tradespeople carrying out repairs and maintenance in flats and houses: “I haven’t had any referrals from other residents because the hoarders tend to keep their hoarding very private. It is usually operatives like plumbers refusing to go into people’s homes.”
Ms Santagostino’s cases range from those who cannot get rid of anything to those that hoard particular items or purchases.
“There are hoarders who will throw their household rubbish out but own 12 kettles. And there are hoarders who will keep every spare part in case they can do something with it later,” she explains. “But there are some who won’t let anything go past their front door. Once it is in, it can’t go out again.”
Derek, who is in his 40s, falls into the former camp. His flat is crammed with black bin bags from floor to ceiling. Ms Santagostino, who has been on the Capsticks hoarding project training course, only gained access when water started leaking into the downstairs flat.
“He couldn’t use his kitchen or his bathroom,” she says. “His bedroom was inaccessible and there was only space for a chair in his sitting room.”
At first Derek – who suffers from depression and obsessive compulsive disorder – was very suspicious of the housing association. He had refused to let anyone inside for eight years. But Ms Santagostino gained his trust by returning many times – and importantly listening to him.
“I dealt with him in a gentle way, enabling him to sort it out himself, rather than us taking over,” she says.
She also encouraged him to visit his doctor and ask for some medication. “To him none of his stuff is rubbish. But he is now managing to throw it out,” she says. “He is improving all the time. He wants it cleared by Christmas.”
This human-centred approach is not only kinder, it is more effective, too. “Housing officers used to go in and say ‘clear this’,” she explains. “But the best way to deal with the problem is to get them to do it themselves – otherwise they will just replace the stuff that has been taken away.”
Moreover, it can be traumatic to remove a person’s belongings without their permission.
“It can cause them great distress,” she remarks.
Martha, who has epilepsy, is the other type of hoarder. She throws her rubbish out but she compulsively orders things from the internet.
“Her flat is beautiful and clean but it is very cluttered,” she says. “She has to move stuff off her bed to sleep. It’s a problem because she collects paper and if something caught fire she wouldn’t stand a chance of getting out safely.”
Ms Santagostino has been building a rapport with Martha and she has started to throw some items away.
The Capsticks course has helped her manage hoarding more effectively. She says the key is getting into the mind of the hoarder.
“The course helped me understand how hoarding works – the different categories of hoarding and the different reasons people hoard.
“A lot of them are building up a barrier to the outside world. Once you understand that you can help them to see the problem.”
The names of tenants have been changed.
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