Gaithersburg, Montgomery try to help hoarders

Gaithersburg code enforcement officials say they dealt with about a half-dozen hoarding cases last year. A city task force is attempting to address the problem.
Gaithersburg code enforcement officials say they dealt with about a half-dozen hoarding cases last year. A city task force is attempting to address the problem. (City Of Gaithersburg)
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By Nathan Carrick
The Gazette
Thursday, April 29, 2010

Elspeth Bell has traversed canyons created by shoulder-high piles of newspapers, magazines, bags of clothing and garbage.

These narrow walkways -- "goat paths" to Bell -- aren't found in alleyways or warehouses, but in the homes of the compulsive hoarders Bell tries to help. And the canyons can be found in Gaithersburg.

Hoarders accumulate vast quantities of possessions and are unable to throw any of them away, experts say. The piles can be a fire hazard, violate housing codes and create generally unsafe living conditions for the hoarder, said Bell, a psychologist with the Behavior Therapy Center of Greater Washington.

Local officials say increased national media attention has brought to light more cases of hoarding in Montgomery County.

Two task forces, one in Gaithersburg and the other in the county's Department of Health and Human Services, have been formed in the past year to help hoarders.

Bell is a member of both task forces.

The county task force, formed about four months ago, includes Bonnie Klem, supervisor of Adult Protective Services for Health and Human Services; HHS Director Uma Ahluwalia; and code enforcement and police representatives. The Gaithersburg group was formed more than a year ago, said Kevin Roman, the city's director of Neighborhood Services. It includes representatives from the Gaithersburg Community Services and Neighborhood Services departments, several nonprofit groups, the county's Health and Human Services Department and the county fire marshal.

"We've seen an increased number of cases over the past few years, but that's probably because of better reporting," said Steve Rainone of Gaithersburg's Planning and Code Department.

Hoarding often is a symptom of a psychological disorder, Bell said. It is not a medical condition, however.

"It's on the spectrum of obsessive-compulsive disorders, but it's not considered OCD," she said. Hoarding also can be the result of traumatic brain injury, depression or other disorders, Bell added.

Health officials estimate that 50 to 60 cases a year are discovered in Montgomery. Roman said about a half-dozen cases were discovered in Gaithersburg last year, and one has been found this year.

"Fifteen years ago, we'd go into a home and we didn't even call it hoarding," Klem said. "It was not considered an illness. It was considered sort of a lifestyle, and people are entitled to do what they want to do."


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