Heather Matuozzo of Clouds End examines the best approaches for landlords looking to tackle hoarding in their properties. Photography by Alamy
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Social landlords frequently encounter hoarded homes. Gas safety checks, Safe and Well Visits or even tenants not responding to offers of refurbishments can all reveal hoarding issues.
If social landlords do not have a clear policy about hoarding then a hoarded home can become a hot potato. If no one understands what to do and whose job it is to intervene, then busy staff can pass the problem from department to department.
Staff require clear strategies and protocols to deal with the problem. There is no quick fix or magical 10-point plan, but here are some ideas that should help.
It is vital that housing officers are sympathetic and tactful when first raising the issue of hoarding with a tenant. Hoarding disorder is officially recognised as a psychiatric condition – and sufferers are not lazy or simply messy. They are not choosing a lifestyle.
Clumsy approaches can often result in a breakdown of trust between the officials and the tenant – and that makes the whole process much harder further down the road. Assess the situation. How serious is the problem? Are there safety or health hazards? There are some tools to help professionals determine how severe the issue is.
Then decide what outcome you really would like. Do you want the property to be completely clear – perhaps for a refurbishment programme? Or is it enough to make sure the property and tenant are safe, walkways are clear, that the kitchen and bathroom are functioning and to carry out a fire safety check? Do you want to become involved with your tenants and offer them support with their condition? Or is this a case for legal intervention?
It is really necessary to decide this before proceeding. Consultations with all agencies who might be involved in a hoarding case will help to clarify a strategy. And most importantly, ask your tenant what outcome they would prefer. The tenant can often provide the solution themselves.
Run a pilot project
One good way to test your organisation’s approach to hoarding is to run a pilot project with several hoarding cases.
This needs a time scale and goals. Decide who will be involved. Give the project a name and develop a game plan.
The project should look at staff training. Hoarding issues can be upsetting for housing staff. Staff can feel exasperated, impatient, revolted or angry when having to deal with hoarded properties. This is normal. It is our flight-or-fight response kicking in.
Training can help staff to understand hoarding disorders as well as their own feelings. This will encourage staff to use empathy and support with the tenants rather than hostility and threats. Knowledge is power, so knowing your own reactions can help avoid some tensions – especially in those crucial first conversations.
One key part of a successful outcome is staff attitude. If staff feel confident with their roles and strategies, they can be far more creative with their approach to the tenant.
Staff will also be more successful if they are working for an organisation that understands the full range of issues.
“Staff will be empowered if they know there are many ways to help tenants.”
Employees can gain confidence by developing a solid protocol alongside the project. This should be a dynamic document that develops with experience so that it really works. If everyone is involved in its creation, it will function well. It should be a toolkit for housing officers. It should show them their path in any given situation. It should include explanations, photos and sample letters to send.
Staff will be empowered if they know there are many ways to help tenants who have an excess of belongings – and that can only produce a happier result for everyone.
The protocol should also contain a directory of local partners that can be compiled as more groups, charities and volunteer organisations are discovered.
These partners and local resources are an invaluable source of extra help. For example, what can your local fire service do? How can social services help? Are there any local charities that need old newspapers, clothes, books and videos? Do any local organisations have volunteers who might help with any part of the project?
Try to be clear with your agencies determining exactly what you would like them to do. Often help is asked for ‘in general’ and is misunderstood as a request to do everything.
The fire service can help with a Safe and Well Visit which will identify the areas that need initial attention to reduce fire risk.
Other potential partners include:
A project takes time, but it also needs momentum so it doesn’t go off the boil. Ensure that cases are regularly reviewed for at least two years after the project has finished.
This will give you an insight into the long-term effects of the work. Ask another lead agency – for example the local safeguarding board – to be part of the review panel. Another viewpoint is always welcome.
Could your organisation run a support group or can you become involved with a local agency who already does? There are very few hoarding support groups in the UK but they can obtain great results.
Within your project make room for ‘champions’. Many people who learn to control their hoarding disorder become evangelists for that process. Could they help you? Are they willing to hold a talk? Or be a mentor? Could you make a video with them to encourage others?
At the end of the project, your organisation should have a battle-tested hoarding policy and protocol for all staff to use in the future.
Heather Matuozzo, founder, Clouds End