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Fighting to Remain Engulfed in Junk

Sam Shipkovitz's living room on the day he was evicted. He filed suit against Arlington County officials claiming that the eviction violated his civil rights.
Sam Shipkovitz's living room on the day he was evicted. He filed suit against Arlington County officials claiming that the eviction violated his civil rights. (Arlington County Fire Department)

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By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 18, 2006

Sam Shipkovitz came home late one evening to the swank Waterford House high-rise condominium building on Crystal Drive, where he'd lived for eight years, to find the door to his unit bolted shut. A bright yellow fire marshal's condemnation placard was fastened over the peephole: "Unfit for Human Habitation."

That was in October. He hasn't lived there since.

Four days after he was locked out of Unit 314, Shipkovitz filed suit against Arlington County officials in federal court claiming that the eviction violated his civil rights. It was among the first suits of its kind. "So I have five printers. . . . So I have piles of books, piles of newspapers," Shipkovitz said. "This is America. There's no such thing as the neatness police."

But there is a newly reconstituted hoarding task force in Arlington. And in an increasingly dense urban environment, officials say, there is simply no room for what may have been overlooked in the past as eccentric collecting.

These days, task force members say, public safety has to trump civil rights. The conflict will be decided by the courts, as hoarding task forces become more aggressive and people such as Shipkovitz fight back.

Shipkovitz is a patent attorney, though he works sporadically and has had long periods of unemployment. He also has a doctorate in electrical engineering; his dissertation was titled "Automated Pattern Recognition of Irradiated Chromosomes." He admits that his place was a mess. Yes, he slept on top of his stuff on the floor under a blanket decorated with racing cars. And yes, there were boxes in the bathtub.

But county officials saw something far more extreme.

Only a 15-inch path ran through the two-bedroom condominium Shipkovitz shared with a roommate, county officials wrote in court papers. The rest, from floor to ceiling, was crammed with "rubbish, debris, paper, boxes, bags and all manner of containers."

The closets were jammed with heavy power tools -- Shipkovitz said he used to run a construction business on the side. The bumper of an old Mustang, its steering wheel and one of its bucket seats lay in the living room. Those belonged to his roommate, he said. The kitchen was unusable: The floor and counters were covered with legal documents from one of his cases. "If one were to actually use the stove or oven," the county wrote, "it would certainly [engulf] the unit in flames."

Capt. Tom Polera, Arlington's assistant fire marshal and a member of the task force, is not concerned about neatness. He cares about whether firefighters and paramedics can get into a home such as Shipkovitz's and then, more importantly, get out.

In the past year and a half, Arlington's hoarding task force has dealt with 34 cases. And, according to court documents, it has locked 18 people out of their homes. The properties of 10 suspected hoarders await Polera's inspection.

"There's a fine line between someone's freedom, the whole 'king of your own castle' thing, and when they're jeopardizing the safety of themselves and others," Polera said. "There's no doubt in my mind we would either injure or kill a number of firefighters."


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