Stockpiling Run Rampant

By Timothy Dwyer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 8, 2005

Over the course of 17 years, a married couple living in a mid-unit, three-bedroom, three-story townhouse in Burke had hoarded so much stuff that their home was overflowing. The weight of the debris was threatening to cause the floors to cave in.

The situation might have gone unnoticed were it not for a windy day in January 2000, when a gust blew open the front door while both were at work. A neighbor peeked in and was alarmed enough to call 911.

When a county engine company arrived, firefighters took one look at the house and called for a fire inspector, who notified the county environmental health division. Inspectors got a warrant and found that the flooring was failing, and when the couple returned from work, they were not allowed to enter because the home was deemed unsafe.

It took 15 dumpsters, each with a capacity of 40 cubic yards, to clean out the rat-infested house, and the owners were ordered to reimburse the county $28,900 for the cleanup. John Yetman, chairman of the county Hoarding Task Force, called it one of the worst cases of hoarding in Fairfax County. It was also a textbook example of how the task force, made up of representatives from 10 agencies, works to solve a problem.

Hoarders accumulate a large amount of goods, cluttering their homes to the point where entire rooms cannot be used for anything else. There are 60 to 90 cases of hoarding reported each year in the county, Yetman said. Rarer are cases of animal hoarding, such as the 82-year-old Mount Vernon woman who was found to have 488 cats -- 222 of them dead -- in her home in July.

This time of year, when the weather turns cold, officials worry about fire hazards created by residential hoarding.

Sometimes, Yetman said, hoarders will use supplemental heat sources such as space heaters or fireplaces because debris blocks the circulation of warm air from the heating system. "A hoarder will make bad decisions to start with," Yetman said. "They are using the fireplace for heat and burning the phone books that they have lifted off everybody's doorstep in the neighborhood because they think they are being thrown out. Or they have a wood stove, and everything around it -- newspapers, clothing, food -- is piled around or on it."

Dan Schmidt, spokesman for the county Fire and Rescue Department, which is part of the task force, said hoarders' homes can be particularly susceptible to fires during the holiday season, when people use electric heat sources for warmth, candles for decorations and Christmas tree lights.

"So we have more fires," he said. "Obviously, the fires are a concern, and we want to make sure that when we have to respond, that people's homes are free and clear. . . . When you have combustible material that overloads a home, there is the potential for a hotter and quicker fire."

Nearly every human being has a little pack rat in them. It is part of human genetics, according to Michael Craig Miller, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and editor in chief of the Harvard Mental Health Letter.

"The impulse to gather and store has had evolutionary advantages for the human race," Miller wrote in an article last year. "Many people are happy to regard themselves as pack rats, collecting possessions while keeping them in good order and out of the way until they are needed. But some people acquire and keep so much stuff that they no longer have space to live, cook a meal, or pay their bills. They live in squalor, and they risk falling or causing a fire."

In the article, Miller recounted one of the most famous cases of hoarding, involving two brothers in New York, Homer and Langley Collyer. In 1947, one brother died when a pile of rubbish in their debris-filled brownstone fell on him, and the other, who was blind and dependent on his brother to feed him, starved to death.

Miller said in a telephone interview that hoarders can come from any ethnic or socioeconomic background and that hoarding is more a symptom of mental illness than an illness itself.

"The desire to hold on to everything becomes kind of the paramount focus for the individual," he said. "It is just impossible to throw away anything. There is not a certain diagnosis that goes along with it. Some people can have an underlying mental disorder that goes along with it. But sometimes it can be the product of somebody -- and often it is an elderly person -- who may have begun to lose some cognitive function or is on the way to developing dementia, and they focus on hoarding as a way of organizing their experience in the world. There is something reassuring about holding on to something."

What hoarders hold on to varies, from used tissues to newspapers, magazines, phone books, holiday decorations or junk neighbors put out for trash collection. Sometimes hoarders are compulsive consumers. Yetman recalled a case in which much of the debris that filled a house came from going-out-of-business sales -- and was in the original shopping bags, along with the receipts.

The lead agency on the task force, which was formed in 1998, is the county Health Department. The group also includes representatives from the Fire and Rescue Department, the Police Department, and the departments of Family Services, Housing and Community Development, Planning and Zoning, and Public Works and Environmental Services, plus the Sheriff's Office, the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board and the office of the county attorney.

"Members of the task force are still part of their respective agencies," said Yetman, who has a degree in biology from George Mason University and has worked for the county for 18 years. "Each agency works on a case in its own fashion. The task force in and of itself was created to deal with the cross-agency communications and with cross-agency education. Before it was formed, people in different agencies made assumptions about what the other agencies could do. And you know what they say about assumptions."

Yetman said that although hoarders are not able to control themselves from collecting stuff at home, in the outside world they are often highly functional people with regular and, sometimes, high-profile jobs.

"We have come across people who have all kinds of mental health issues, yet they hold down extremely responsible jobs," he said. "We are talking very high levels in the federal government. There was this one gentleman who was a senior adviser for a deputy undersecretary of a Cabinet member. Another person was a head nurse for an emergency room. Another one was a computer expert for the Maryland State Police. . . . We have had people who have been very concerned about losing their government security clearance because, if they fight us all the way and we end up in court, these are misdemeanor charges."

Yetman said the task force usually hears about hoarders from family members, neighbors or outside sources such as service people who have been called to the home. The county cannot force its way into a hoarder's house; officials have to be invited. If they cannot gain access and suspect that the situation poses a danger to the health of the hoarder or neighbors, or is causing structural damage, the task force can go before a judge and ask for an administrative inspection warrant.

A case in March at a five-bedroom, two-story Colonial in Baileys Crossroads was one of the worst in the county. As in all such cases, officials cannot disclose names and addresses, citing privacy concerns.

A detached six-car garage and the entire house, with the exception of a tiny portion of the foyer, was chock-full of debris. Two sisters, both older than 65, were sleeping in a van in front of the house that was also filled except for the two front seats.

The health and zoning enforcement departments went to the house after getting complaints about outside storage, rats and mosquito-breeding on the property. The sisters declined an offer of assistance from the Department of Family Services. One sister later became ill, and the other was unable to handle her sister's illness and the cleanup of the house.

A guardian was then appointed by a county court, and the debris removed. It took one huge dumpster just to hold the junk from the foyer and stairs. And 28 more were needed to haul away the rest.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company