Task force tries to save those who save too much - Hoarding, a growing problem, is a nuisance to neighbors and can create dangers in the home
To Ruth Bell Thomas, the jumble of weathered wood, tattered shoes, totem poles and plastic children's furniture spilling into her yard on Lake City Way is protest art, a priceless collection memorializing her life and politics.
Many of us grew up knowing of an elderly neighbor or eccentric relative similar to Thomas. Their out-of-control saving was usually explained away as an extreme reaction to the deprivations of the Great Depression or some other hardship.
But new research is finding that hoarding, a syndrome far more common than once believed, is most often the result of long-untreated mental illness that has nothing to do with the stock market crash of 1929. To deal with the city's toughest hoarding cases, a unique, multiagency task force has been created.
Often reclusive, hoarders spend years compulsively cramming their homes so full that stoves and toilets become unusable, and passage is limited to "trails" snaking through piles of newspapers, junk mail and fast food containers. It's usually not until rats take up residence and roofs begin to sag that city officials can gain access. And even then it can take years of legal maneuvers and up to $50,000 for a "dig-out" to remove tons of materials and make the homes safe again.
But because treatment for the syndrome is nearly non-existent here, the hoarding cycle often begins again once housing inspectors and public health workers leave. And neighbors are the ones who endure the eyesores and smells of homes that have become potential fire hazards.
"These people sink into this because they are isolated and without family, and they are often quietly dying without anyone on the outside caring," said Jordan Royer of the city's Department of Neighborhoods, who is heading the task force. "We are seeing it at every income level and every neighborhood."
The task force has assembled information on individuals who have demonstrated hoarding behavior that has caught the attention of neighbors and city officials. The names of the people identified in this story were taken from these and other city records.
In Victory Heights, 81-year-old John Hagaman continues hoarding bags of rotting meat, sour produce and canned goods in his overgrown back yard, despite years of neighborhood complaints about the smells. In West Seattle, sisters Elaine and Cheryl Anden can't be persuaded to leave a crammed home whose roof is caving in and toilet no longer flushes.
In the most tragic cases, hoarders' habits lead to their deaths. On lower Queen Anne last year, firefighters were unable to save 75-year-old Becky Leuckenotte when she dropped a cigarette in a condominium carpeted from wall to wall with a 3-foot-high pile of papers and plastic bags.
And only about a tenth of hoarders ever come to the attention of public officials, according to Randy Frost, a professor of psychology at Smith College who is widely considered the nation's leading researcher on compulsive hoarding. His work suggests that there are 350 hoarders per 100,000 people, or about 6,300 people suffering from the syndrome in King County alone.
Contrary to popular belief, those who faced extreme deprivation in the Great Depression or Holocaust generally don't become hoarders, he said. Hoarding is not keeping a bank of shelves in the garage well-stocked with canned goods for an emergency or having a collection of snow globes or African masks that has grown a little out of control.
By clinical definition, hoarders store things that are useless or of no value in volumes that interfere with their daily functioning, Frost said. Most typical are accumulations of newspapers, junk mail, soda cans and construction materials. But in recent years in King County, public officials have discovered collections of shampoo bottles, unworn clothing, chewed meat, urine and feces, TV dinner trays, stripped-down bicycles, plastic buckets of dirt, scrap metal, old boats, junk cars and animals both dead and alive.
Researchers are still studying what's at the root of the compulsion to save. They know the behavior generally begins in childhood or adolescence and that it tends to run in families. Hoarders are likely to be unmarried or divorced. Hoarding is often associated with obsessive compulsive disorder, but some hoarders suffer from chronic depression, attention deficit disorder, dementia or schizophrenia, research has shown.
Hoarders tend to worry intensely about throwing away something that they may need later. One patient of Frost's got apprehensive thinking about all the newspapers published in the world because it reminded her of all the information that was lost to her forever.
Although hoarders may acknowledge that their collections have gotten out of control, they seem to be powerless to whittle them down or stop collecting. And they come up with creative ways to justify their acquisitions and gather more things.
Lloyd Chambers, an 86-year-old man from whose University District home city officials recently removed 20,000 pounds of debris, mows the lawns of his neighbors for free as part of his search for treasures. Ruth Bell Thomas has written long letters to the Department of Design, Construction and Land Use explaining that her folk art collection is her way of speaking out against "North American Apartheid." ."
Greg Lamont, supervisor of housing and zoning inspections for DCLU, said hoarders are famous for telling inspectors to just come back in two weeks, and they'll have their messes cleaned up.
The inability to change habits ingrained over a lifetime explains why a single hoarding case can suck up hundreds of hours of time for public health workers, community service police officers, housing inspectors, fire marshals, city attorneys and mental health professionals and take years to resolve.
Neighbors often grow incredibly frustrated with how long it takes to deal with a problem home and how limited the resources are for helping hoarders improve.
Curtis Colvin, who's lived next door to Hagaman since 1977, remembers summers in which the smell of rotting food reminded him of dead game.
"He's a nice enough guy, but if I'd known there was a hoarder
problem there, I never would have bought my house," Colvin said.
In cases where there's a documented community health risk, public health workers can sometimes persuade a judge to grant a search warrant that leads to an order for an immediate cleanup.
But in most cases, the city faces a lengthy process that begins with a DCLU or the public health department decreeing that a property is "unfit for human habitation." Next comes deadlines for the homeowners to repair or demolish the structure themselves; fines and administrative hearings for not doing so; and ultimately the filing of a civil suit against the hoarder.
When the city does finally win a judge's permission to bring in Dumpsters and organize a dig-out, it can be a painful experience for the hoarder.
"They are devastated," Lamont said. "They'll tell us that we have come in and stolen their stuff."
Dig-outs can cost as much as $50,000 because of the sheer volume of material that has to be removed and the damage homes have suffered during years of neglect. The city recently established a revolving fund to cover the cost of cleanups. And it places a lien against the property that will allow the city to recoup the costs when the house is ultimately sold.
The cases task force members are proudest of are those in which they have had success getting hoarders to have their homes cleaned up voluntarily. Seattle Community Police Officer Cheryl Brush visited newly widowed West Seattle retiree Ellen Allbrough again and again in the summer of 1999 in a slow effort to win her trust. The two women discovered that they were both Lincoln High School alums.
When Allbrough finally did show Brush her home, it was a disaster -- the kitchen floor was piled with empty food containers, dirty dishes and plastic bags, the living room an impassable jumble of lamps, clothes, furniture and trash, her bed barely distinguishable from the pile of discarded clothes around it.
An unassuming woman who had been beaten throughout her 32-year marriage by her husband, Allbrough was overwhelmed by the responsibility of handling her own finances and caring for her home alone. And she had no family to help her.
Allbrough allowed Brush to organize a partial dig-out of her living room and bedroom that September. Brush remembers being struck by finding a lovely rose colored rug beneath the debris and being struck that once Allbrough had been a vibrant woman with good taste.
But before long, trash began piling up again. This time Brush convinced Allbrough that the home had to be cleared out from top to bottom. In August of 2001, a team of volunteers from the Police Department and Conservation Corps filled two 40-yard Dumpsters with her debris. The team even installed new appliances, painted and hung curtains.
Allbrough said she tried to stay away during the dig-out because it was painful to watch her things being carted away.
"It was very, very humiliating, but it had to be done," she said.
On a visit to her home last week, more than a year since the dig-out, food boxes and dirty dishes had again buried her sink and her stove, and trash had accumulated around her bed. Allbrough said she has been distracted by a sick cat and a runaway dog in recent weeks and had let her housekeeping go.
"I know it's a mess," she said, hugging her dog, Radar. "I am trying to stay focused on the things that are important."
Brush said police will keep checking on Allbrough until she dies. "I won't let her fall into a crack," she said.
Hoarders inevitably return to their old habits without treatment, said Frost, who runs an anti-anxiety clinic for hoarders at Boston University and is working to refine a treatment protocol for the syndrome.
The therapy focuses on getting hoarders to recognize how many daily functions they can't carry out because of the clutter. In regularly scheduled excavation sessions, they are taught to organize their possessions into piles of things that will either be put away, given away or discarded. The project might be as small as clearing off a bedside table. It's important that the hoarder decides the fate of every object.
His therapy is offered at just a few clinics in the country, and with the intense budget shortfalls that mental health services in this region face, there's little chance intensive treatment will be offered here soon.
Yet, Frost said he is hopeful that less expensive, community-based approaches -- such as clutter workshops and support groups such as Messies Anonymous -- that have had success can be refined and expanded.
Said Kent of the Geriatric Regional Assessment Team: "Sometimes the best we can do for hoarders is to make their homes safe."
For environmental health concerns about a home in King County, call Public Health Seattle -- King County at 206-205-4394.
For code compliance concerns within Seattle, call the city's Department of Construction and Land Use Complaint Hot Line at 206-684-7899.
P-I reporter Heath Foster can be reached at 206-448-8337 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Editor's Comment: Although on the surface such care of individuals might look like a good thing, any time government gets involved with people's lives, there seems to be no limit to their involvement. Who decides what defines 'hoarding'? It is a subjective decision, and one which, like so many other 'helpful' government programs, will eventually end of more loss of individual liberties and erosion of constitutional freedoms.
Author Niki Raapana, forwarded the following commentary on the above story:
The world needs your help, and it needs it now. And hey, it pays
to get involved too, because after we help these people shape up or
ship out, we can get a lien to recoup what we spend, and there's no
limit to what we can
All joking aside, Homeland Security is assuming power over every
state and city agency in the country. How insane do we let it get?
CIA agents are being assigned to 54 FBI offices across America. The
FBI directs all local
What kind of a government creates new classifications of mental illness and creates new community mental health "officers" to diagnose and intervene on persons "afflicted" with the unsubstantiated new illness?
Jordan Royer, btw, was referred to in my answers to Mike Highs q's. Her job description in this PI article neglects to define her position with the new community mapping, planning and analysis for saftey strategies.
Support Ruth Thomas Hill's First Amendment Right to free speech, and her Fifth Amendment right to own property free from govt interference.Never mind her Fourth Amendment Right to be free from warrantless searches, that one was balanced out by the COPS program years ago.
Help stop communitarian laws. The country you save may be your own.
(Niki Raapana is a researcher and activist, and is writing a book
on the subject of communitarianism. An excerpt from her book can be
found at: Big
Mother: An Unsustainable Concept by Niki Friedrich Raapana)
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