By Jessica Lovell
Many people have turned on the TV and flipped to Hoarders to gawk at these people who just can’t seem to throw anything away. But how many people watching this train-wreck reality TV show pause to think about the hoarders living in the local community?
Goldie Barth didn’t need to watch reality TV to see hoarding. She saw it in her job working for Wellington County Social Services.
“We see a number of people evicted because of hoarding,” she said, noting an example of how the issue is sometimes encountered.
It was an issue she wanted to address, but perhaps not in the way the reality TV stars were taking it on.
In 2010, Barth pulled a committee together made up of representatives from a variety of social service agencies and interested stakeholders, including property managers, city and county staff, health-care representatives and more. They make up the Wellington Guelph Hoarding Network, and at the end of this month they will begin Project Safety, an initiative aimed at addressing hoarding locally.
The initiative, funded through a $30,000 grant from the Healthy Communities fund, aims to raise awareness of hazards associated with hoarding. It is a problem that can show up in any community and is often associated with mental illness or some traumatic life event. It manifests as a kind of extreme clutter so bad that its risks include injury, fire, illness, vermin infestations and even death. “The risks of hoarding are huge for the person living in the environment, huge for the people who live near them and stressful for family members,” said Barth.
The hoarding network has spent the last couple of years meeting and working together to understand the extent of the problem locally, and to work on strategies for how to address it.
“One agency cannot do this on its own,” Barth said.
Project Safety will bring members of the hoarding network together to work with the general public to promote a harm-reduction approach to the issue.
They will initiate the project on Sept. 27 with a workshop at the Italian Canadian Club led by Mark Odom, clinical consultant to the Orange County Task Force on Hoarding.
The workshop is aimed at service providers and will describe strategies for engaging hoarders in the harm-reduction process.
Harm-reduction strategies involve a non-judgmental approach that doesn’t seek to change a hoarder overnight. The goal instead is to target key risk areas of a home, such as stoves, heaters, exits and other danger areas.
“It’s about house ‘safe and functional,’ not ‘house beautiful,’ ” said Odom in a news release.
Around the time that the local hoarding network was forming, news emerged of a Toronto fire that started on the balcony of an apartment building. The resident was a suspected hoarder whose possessions had overflowed to the balcony. No one died, but it brought the issue into the light for a lot of municipalities, said Barth.
“All of a sudden you couldn’t ignore it, because people’s lives were in danger,” she said.
Local fire chief Shawn Armstrong says although hoarding does not figure in many local fires, there have been some. “The impact could be tragic,” he added.
But he knows fire prevention officers cannot simply go into a home and order the place cleaned up. “We have to be very careful in how we approach the situation,” said Armstrong. “A person’s home is their home and there has to be respect for that.”
Until the network came together, each organization that encountered a hoarder – be it fire inspector, landlord, mental health agency or health-care provider – could address the problem differently.
But now the organizations are working on working together to address not just the problem itself, but some of the underlying issues related to it, said Barth.
They estimate that anywhere from two-and-a-half to three per cent of the population are hoarders, and that number likely increases with age, she said.
The work will not get done overnight, as the issues associated with hoarding can be complex. But having a strategy for dealing with it is an important part of the process. Over the coming year, Project safety will involve about a dozen workshops or sessions for various community groups and organizations, said Barth.
The goal is to educate people, foster greater collaboration and provide a system of support to help the hoarders and those they impact.