When Edina police got to the condo building at 4100 Parklawn Avenue at 4 a.m. one day last May, they found a woman sleeping in the building’s library.
Police escorted her to her condo unit but could open the door only 10 inches. Boxes, bags and other possessions were stacked almost to the ceiling.
Last week the Edina City Council declared the unit a health, safety and fire hazard. The occupant, a woman in her 70s, has 20 days to fix the situation or the city will seek court permission to abate the hazardous conditions.
The case shows that the silent epidemic of hoarding isn’t limited to urban and poor areas, said Janet Yeats, co-founder of the Hoarding Project and the Minnesota Hoarding Task Force.
“These people are not necessarily crazy or poor or living in ramshackle houses, they can be right next door … they can be people you work with,” Yeats said. “There’s a stereotype there, to think it can’t happen in Edina or North Oaks. It does. It can happen anywhere.”
Solvei Wilmot, environmental health specialist for the city of Edina, said hoarding issues arise at least once a year. Many of them are repeat cases.
“Hoarding is a mental health disorder, not a socioeconomic issue,” she said. “If people live in Edina, it will happen here.”
Edina has had contact with this hoarder before. The city cleared her unit out in 2005. In 2008 and 2010, she was warned again about too many possessions in her unit. Wilmot said the latest violation went to the council because there was so much fuel for a fire that it was deemed a safety risk.
The case started last year when one of the woman’s neighbors contacted the city, saying she could not access her storage unit because of all the stuff the woman had accumulated. She said the problem had existed for at least 18 months. The neighbor said the woman was sleeping in the building’s library and may have been keeping herself clean by using facilities in a laundry room.
Photos taken by police show boxes, bags and possessions cramming rooms, blocking windows and coming within inches of a chandelier. Piles of cardboard boxes, bags and storage items were near heating devices as well as near exits, making it difficult to exit or enter the unit. The woman told police it had been at least five days since she had been in her apartment.
The city tried repeatedly to get the woman to remove some of her stuff. She was notified in September of code violations, but didn’t take action, and in October, asked for an extension. The city gave her until November.
In December, the city sent a letter asking that the woman schedule an inspection of the property by the middle of the month, but she never responded.
Yeats said that the woman’s history of hoarding shows she needs mental health counseling, and nothing will change unless she gets it. Repeated checks by a city actually compound the problem by making already-anxious hoarders even more anxious.
“These people have unresolved trauma or loss in their lives,” Yeats said. “If you just go in and clean out their home, they will rehoard again as a response.”
Wilmot said the city has often sought help from public health nurses and others to work with hoarders. The problem is that people don’t always want help, she said. They find comfort in their excess possessions, yet getting rid of what they emotionally need is the only way to fix the situation for safety and health.
“Our challenge is for people to accept these services,” Wilmot said. “It can be very frustrating on my side when we’ve given them the tools to get help … but the individual has a choice. They say yes, and make an appointment, and then we find they’ve canceled it.
“It has to escalate to the point where people recognize they have a problem.”
Yeats suggests officials give hoarders a deadline and stick to it, using the carrot that they can keep some of their stuff only if they have counseling with a professional and work with people who will remove enough stuff to make their dwelling safe. Otherwise, their home is cleared out.
She said she understands that the situation is a difficult one for cities.
“The city doesn’t have the money or time to try to get someone to change, and they never will,” she said. “That’s where we need the mental health person and the professional organizer who continues to sort and manage things in the home as we understand why they are hoarding.”
The Parklawn condo building has more than 100 units. Building management could not be reached by phone, and the phone of the woman who owned the unit was not accepting calls last week.