Bonnie Klem has been walking into homes for more than 15 years, and the signs that something is wrong are often visible from the sidewalk: There’s an odor, or the blinds are always drawn. There are piles of rusted fenders on the lawn, or seven broken vacuum cleaners on the front steps. Sometimes, the backyard grass is barely visible through piles of stuffed plastic bags.
Inside, stacks of newspapers reach the ceiling. Toppled boxes, exploded cans of spaghetti sauce, office supplies and garbage block the hallways. The stairs are crumbling, and the floors sometimes give way to the weight of one person’s stuff.
These exceptionally cluttered homes fall into the category of hoarding, a problem local, regional and national authorities consider a matter of public health and public safety. It is also now recognized as a significant mental health issue, one that experts say causes its sufferers to accumulate objects to the point that they become emotionally attached to and perhaps endangered by them.
Across the Washington area, local jurisdictions have been setting up hoarding task forces to coordinate their responses and raise awareness of the issue. Simply hauling out the trash and encouraging the hoarder to start over with a clean house can be emotionally damaging and futile. Now, officials use resources across a broad spectrum to get hoarders the help and support they need.
“There is such a thin line between people saying, ‘Oh, those quirky slobs,’ and recognizing that this is a disease and that they need help,” said Klem, a member of the Montgomery County Hoarding Task Force who also supervises investigations for the county’s adult protective services. “These people are becoming victims of their things. We’re trying to get a better edge on how to help hoarders and to get people to understand the problem.”
The task forces have become more prevalent in recent years. The first known task force, in Fairfax County, was one of five in the country in 2006. This year, there are more than 85, said experts who study hoarding.
In addition to Montgomery County’s task force, which began in 2009, other localities in the Washington area modeled programs after Fairfax’s in recent years. Arlington County started a task force in 2002, and Prince William County began a task force this summer.
Experts estimate that between 2 and 5 percent of the U.S. population demonstrates some sort of hoarding behavior, meaning millions of Americans are in need of help. Awareness has been bolstered by popular television shows depicting hoarders and those trying to intervene. But some warn that those cases spotlight only people willing to allow cameras into their home and don’t focus on the vast majority, who try to hide their condition and its evidence.
Gail Steketee, dean of Boston University’s School of Social Work, is a renowned hoarding expert and co-author of “Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things.” She said the problem can be compared to “a little bit of pack rat behavior gone haywire.”
“Many people like to save things,” Steketee said. “The trouble with hoarders is they like to save things and struggle hard emotionally with letting things go. . . . The objects become more important than being able to use the home. They’re so addicted to what they have that they can’t live without it.”
And taking the stuff away can have negative effects, causing sufferers to grieve deeply — almost as if they’ve lost a loved one — and can lead to depression.
Steketee said the task forces aim to deal with hoarding when it reaches the public sector, such as when a home filled with objects becomes unsafe for habitation or when piles of brittle papers are a fire hazard. Such homes can endanger neighbors, too.
“If the person is not willing to be helped, the task forces get together and consult with each other and figure out who can get a foot in the door in order to establish a relationship with this person,” Steketee said. “Someone with a serious hoarding problem usually has other social-service needs in addition to mental-health needs.”
Fairfax County sees roughly 130 to 150 reported cases of hoarding each year and has taken a serious approach to the issue since 1998, in response to a few signifcant cases. Michael Congleton, chairman of the Fairfax County Hoarding Task Force, said the group has made response to the cases much more efficient and effective.
Congleton said cases often involve people who need help from several agencies. The county’s fire and rescue department might discover a home with hazards that has children, elderly adults and animals living inside. Suddenly, help is needed from adult protective services, animal control and child protective services.
“Members can come up with a plan saying we need to have a coordinated inspection and know what to expect,” Congleton said. “It’s a great way to share information among the appropriate people so you don’t have four different agencies doing four different things.”
Prince William County started its task force this year as a way to bring a team approach to a concern that has entered the public consciousness, even if it hasn’t become a massive problem in the county. Patricia Reilly, chief of the county’s Neighborhood Services Division, said Prince William sees rare cases of hoarding — there are nine active cases — but that because it is a complex issue, it deserved a coordinated approach.
“Because these kinds of cases can involve multiple aspects that are best addressed by various agencies,” Reilly said, “it only made sense to make certain we brought all relevant agencies to the table when confronted with these cases.”
Klem, in Montgomery County, said the problem can seem “illogical” to those who aren’t in the middle of it, because it would seem simple to just clean up the house and hope that the person would then maintain it. But the “things” in the homes become so important to their owner that they can’t part with them. They don’t understand they have a problem until they are forced to face it.
The task forces, Klem said, aim to keep people living in their homes, avoid eviction and public-safety threats and get help for their illnesses. She said authorities do not look at hoarders as troublemakers but rather people in need of assistance.
“People are not trying to do something that is wrong,” Klem said. “To them, it’s right. It’s a mental illness, and we’re hoping to get that understood.”
Hoarding contact information
If you are concerned about someone who is demonstrating hoarding behavior, call a local law enforcement or adult protective services office. These task forces tackle the issue in this region:
hhs/Reports/. Click on “Task Force on Hoarding Behavior” for a pdf of the report.