Hoarders present a complex challenge for local officials with limited powers

A woman's belongings lined several blocks of sidewalks surrounding her home in Columbia Heights on Wednesday morning after she was evicted.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 8, 2010; 9:08 PM

When Eloisa Diaz was evicted last month and her belongings spilled from her house to the corner and in three more directions, passersby in her Northwest Washington neighborhood asked the same question: How?

How could anyone collect so much stuff? How could it fit in one small house, even with each room piled high with items? How was it that no one saw this was a problem?

The scene attracted much attention because of the extraordinary array of belongings stretching over four city blocks. But court records and interviews show that this was not Diaz's first eviction, nor was it the first time Diaz's extreme collecting had become public.

Even as Diaz stuffed full her rental property on 11th Street near Otis Place, where she said she lived for 15 years, she was falling behind on payments for an apartment on Rock Creek Church Road NW that she had rented for eight years. In 2009, Diaz was thrown out of that apartment; photos taken after that eviction show a similar tangled scene of overflowing sidewalks. Clothes spill from trash bags. Atop one of many eye-level piles rests a toppled stroller, although Diaz has no children - nor any family in this country.

In both instances, a very private habit suddenly became public and strangers took the liberty to utter a label that has become commonplace: hoarder.

Although Diaz has no public diagnosis of hoarding, a mental illness, her situation illustrates the complexities of such cases. Government officials who handle these cases around the Washington area say it's not unusual for such people to keep multiple properties. Even when their habits are reported - by a concerned relative or a shocked repairman - helping them requires a delicate walk between enforcement and psychological help.

Bonnie Klem, a social worker on Montgomery County's Hoarding Task Force, which was formed last year, recalled a case in which she had to leave her purse in the car to have any chance of squeezing into a man's house. Even without the purse, she could barely fit through the narrow passageways the man had carved through his belongings. Inside, Klem found a disturbing scene: the man's bed covered almost to the ceiling with clothes, paint cans and cleaning products stacked next to papers and boxes covered with maggots.

She said several cars in the driveway were also filled to the point that only a driver could squeeze in. Officials later discovered that the man, whom Klem described as a well-educated government worker, had multiple addresses.

"People who hoard see things differently than we do," Klem said. "They see it as rewarding in many ways."

Klem, who also supervises the county's Adult Protective Services unit, said hoarding makes up 12 percent of her department's caseload and each case can be time-consuming. Across the region, officials do not have the right to enter a private property without the owner's permission or a court order; even after they do get inside, they are limited mostly to inspecting for fire or safety violations.

"It's a long process of trying to develop trust and respect," Klem said. "We don't have the right to force anyone to do anything."

She recalled one case in which she and other officials met with a woman, a county employee, three or four times before being allowed into the home.

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