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Hoarding – when a room full of clutter turns into an unhealthy condition

Room for concern: A room full of clutter can quickly turn into an unhealthy eyesore.

MOST of us can relate – we simply have too much stuff.

But what happens if we hang on to that stuff for far too long, or collect it to the point that it not only clutters our home, but overtakes it?

Sometimes piles of mess go beyond being an eyesore – furniture, magazines, car parts and tools, rancid food, even live animals in cages or roaming free – attracting vermin and creating an unhealthy, hazardous environment.

In Brisbane, the number of hoarders is estimated at 45,000 people – up to five per cent of the population.

“It is real. It’s not because someone is dirty and lazy, it’s a condition not a choice,” Stevie-Lee Conroy, Centacare Brisbane’s Service Delivery Manager for Hoarding and Squalor, said.

“Hoarding is an obsessive need to acquire and keep things and can be triggered by loss, poverty, psychiatric illnesses and physical disorders.”

To illustrate the obsessive need of a hoarder, Ms Conroy recalls the case of one man who hid money between the pages of newspapers.

When she visited his house she found one entire room waist deep in newspaper stacks containing thousands of dollars.

The newspapers had piled up over many years, with moisture turning the lower layers brick hard, and the upper layers mouldy and rancid.

“In his case, the reason for this behaviour was a distrust of banks and the fees they charged,” she said.

“We were successful in recovering that money and building trust with him.”

Centacare has a small team dedicated to helping hoarders.

They offer a specialist cleaning service, and are pioneering a support group workshop aimed at changing hoarding behaviour disorders.

The cleaning service works closely with other agencies – community services, child welfare, Brisbane City Council, and the RSPCA – helping to recover healthy living conditions and avoiding fire risks.

For tenants living in squalor, a thorough house clean can help avoid eviction and a downward spiral into homelessness.

The most vulnerable groups affected by severe domestic hoarding are children and elderly people, and in the last 12 months Centacare received hundreds of referrals from relatives or agencies.

Ms Conroy often leads a specialist, six-member cleaning team to deal with severe domestic squalor cases.

Cleanups can take from a day to a week.

“One place we cleaned in excess of 150 hours,” she said.

“We wear hazmat suits, shoe covers, gloves, masks and glasses. Sometimes you have to wear gumboots depending on the situation.”

She said it can be “very confronting” for a person to have a team enter their house for such a cleanup.

A lot of care and effort is put into making sure a person is ready for the stress of a cleanup going ahead in their home.

“Most people are so overwhelmed with it they don’t know where to begin,” Lucy Nash, another member of the Centacare team said.

She said hoarders were often ashamed of how their family, friends and neighbours saw their behaviour – but it’s complicated and should not be like that.

“Hoarders see the beauty in something that others would call rubbish,” she said.

Ms Nash said she recalls one remarkable first encounter with a hoarder.

“We were in his yard, precariously piled full of stuff – everywhere. He even had a mini crane to move stuff around because it was such a packed backyard,” she said.

“And we were standing on some pavers and he pointed them out to me and said he had got them from a building site because they were just rubble.

“But he said to me ‘Look really closely at them, Lucy’.

“Each paver had a love heart stamped into it.

“And he told me he searched through all of the rubble to find only the pavers that were stamped with love hearts.

“He gathered them all from a pile of rubble, brought them home and paved his entire pathway to the front door with those love heart bricks.

“That was an inspiring moment for me to see through his eyes because he sees the beauty in things that you would ordinarily dismiss as just a brick on a pile of rubbish.”

Trash or treasure: “Hoarders see the beauty in something that others would call rubbish.”

Many visits to hoarders’ houses have not been so pleasant.

“There was a particularly nasty smell. We started moving things around and under a table near the person’s seat was his cat that had died. It was quite deteriorated, but he didn’t know. He thought the cat had run away,” Ms Nash said.

Ms Nash has entered bathrooms to find a bathtub filled with faeces and toilet paper.

She has found bottles of urine saved and stored.

“It is not a very nice topic,” she said.

“People see the mess or the clutter.

“But there is a person behind that stuff… always a reason why it has come to that stage or why it has happened to them.

“So its really important to go in without judgement and with compassion and work with that person.”

Recently Centacare received about $33,000 from the Queensland government’s Dignity First Funding grant to conduct a 20-session course structured workshop designed specifically to help hoarders see that they have a problem, and then equip them with the tools and support they need to stop accumulating.

The workshop draws on a program by US Professor Randy Frost whose book Buried in Treasures explains that most hoarders we re motivated by a combination of three factors –emotional or sentimental attachment, aesthetic appreciation, and utility.

Overseas, the Buried Treasures program has proven effective in helping people reduce their clutter.

First, participants speak about their own experience. In the next stage the mental health impacts on the brain are explained and then the workshop unpacks how the physiology impacts through hoarding behaviours.

“It’s a very humbling workshop,” Ms Nash said.

“To have a room of people who understand what you are going through when most of the world doesn’t is such a breakthrough in itself.

“The beauty of this workshop is that we have a place where people can be themselves – most of them hide it from their family and friends, most get terrified when they hear a knock on the door because they don’t want to open the door and let anyone look inside their house.

“So it’s really important to have that workshop to show them the tools, and shine some light on the subject and together say hey, we can make a difference in your world the way you want it to look like.

The first week of the course, with a group of 18 participants and facilitators, had just begun when COVID-19 forced the program to postpone.

Centacare workers believe there is enormous scope to open courses so that more people can participate.

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