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Thursday, April 26 News

Task force tackles hidden dangers of hoarding in Westport homes

Magazines and newspapers are piled high all around the room. The furniture is covered -- several layers deep -- with clothing and household items, and there is a distinctly foul odor in the house.

It's impossible to walk in any direction because of the detritus stacked everywhere. Eventually, when the homeowner can't find bills or a checkbook to pay them, the heat may be shut off, causing a pipe to burst and mold to grow. Food will rot in the disconnected refrigerator, attracting rodents.

This is the home of a hoarder in crisis.

Hoarding is enough of a problem in Westport and Weston that a special task force has been established to help combat the problem. The Safer Homes Task Force works to identify homes with "heavy content" -- the code word fire officials use for homes where hoarding occurs -- because those dwellings can pose a major safety challenge for the people who live in them and for emergency personnel who may be called when the problem reaches a critical stage, according to Loren Pace, coordinator for the Safer Homes Task Force and a public health nurse at the Westport Weston Health District.

The task force has already identified about a dozen such homes, and Pace estimated there could be as many as 50 more in the two towns.

In addition to the obvious fire hazard the collection of junk creates, an overstuffed house may also pose a risk because the extra weight could collapse the building, especially when water is added to the piles of stuff if fire erupts.

Stretchers can't be carried into the premises to remove anyone with a medical problem, and emergency personnel can't get into highly cluttered rooms or out of them because of blocked doorways.

Hoarded junk also poses fall risks for the resident, especially the elderly.

And yet from the outside, many of these homes may look completely normal.

The task force was established when Lt. Brett Kirby of the Westport Fire Department contacted the health district to identify homes that might pose a risk to first responders. Representatives from the Westport Police and Fire departments, Westport Human Services, Weston Social Services, the Westport Weston Health District, the Westport Building Department, and Positive Directions, a nonprofit counseling agency, now meet monthly to address the problems hoarding creates.

To an outsider, the solution to a hoarding problem seems easy: Clean it up. But the emotional entanglement hoarders have with the things they save makes clean-up extremely difficult, according to Pace.

She defined hoarding as the behavior of acquiring things coupled with the inability to throw them out. "Throwing things out causes severe anxiety," she explained.

"Gertrude," a Westport woman (not her real name) and hoarder who has been helped by the task force, said that hoarders usually can't admit they have a problem. A woman at least in her 60s, she sat in the health district office with Pace and Monica Wheeler, the health district's director of community health, because Gertrude wants to assist the task force in helping other hoarders like her.

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"I had this behavior, but I never acknowledged it," Gertrude said. She thought of herself as a "collector," or a person who saves things for her kids. "It was a `someday-ish' mentality as in `someday I might need it,' " she said. "You surround yourself with things, like a wall."

Her hoarded items had to be cleaned out precipitously when Superstorm Sandy flooded her home and everything in it was destroyed. In a way, the storm actually had a positive influence on her life, she said. "It forced my hand."

Gertrude has been getting one-on-one counseling and is making progress defeating the hoarding behavior. She recently attended an auction and didn't buy a single item, she told Pace and Wheeler, which earned her a round of applause from both women.

The homes of hoarders are identified on the Westport emergency data base with an alert button, at Kirby's request. Knowing that hoarding is a problem in the home will help emergency personnel address any problem there more safely, Pace said.

But just knowing that a hoarding situation exists doesn't mean that the town -- or anyone else -- can come in and remove the hoarded items, Wheeler said. "We don't have the right to take away their possessions or change the way they live," she said.

The town can take legal action against a homeowner only if it is determined that they are in imminent danger or if the house is found to be structurally unsound, Pace said. But the goal of the task force is not to combat the problem by forcibly removing people or junk, but by earning a hoarder's trust and eventually persuading him or her to tackle the problem with the help of community resources.

"It takes time and patience," Pace said. The first step is often entering the home to check for smoke detectors or the welfare of the resident when alerted by a relative or neighbor.

Although the stereotype of a hoarder is an elderly person unable to throw anything away for years, hoarding often begins in adolescence, according to Wheeler. It is often exacerbated by a traumatic event such as a death in the family. "A parent dies and the [adult] child doesn't throw anything of theirs out," she said. Hoarders who come to the attention of emergency personnel are often elderly, she said, simply because they can no longer clean their homes as well or become confused about paying their bills.

One of the task force's goals is to start a support group for hoarders and their families. Gertrude said she would be interested in attending a support group for people like herself and is grateful for the help the town has given her.

"You're living in a secret world," she said. "Imagine not removing anything from a room for 10 years ¦ Having people know you are a hoarder is embarrassing and humiliating."

For more information, visit www.ocdfoundation/hoarding or call 203-227-9571, ext. 231.