Too much stuff: Minnesota cities confront hoarding

  • Article by: MARY JANE SMETANKA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 29, 2013 - 8:55 PM

Officials statewide are trying to resolve cases where extreme clutter is health and safety threat.


Faced with a steady and apparently rising stream of homes that are overflowing with garbage, filth and just plain stuff, Minnesota cities are marshaling resources against the threat to public health and safety.

Last week, Richfield refined its ordinances to define hoarding and overcrowding in the hope that it will help the city deal with a gradual increase in cases.

While officials in other cities hesitate to say they are seeing more hoarding incidents, one expert says statewide numbers are going up.

A Minnesota hoarding task force and a nonprofit group called The Hoarding Project are working to assist local officials, as well as hoarders.

Janet Yeats, co-founder of The Hoarding Project and chairwoman of the state task force on hoarding, said that while there are no state statistics on hoarding, the tales she hears from officials around the state indicate more incidences are being reported.

With high-profile headlines and a TV show that focuses on hoarding, public awareness may be growing, and people may be more likely to spot a home they think has a problem.

“The number absolutely has been going up, or it has always been high and we just didn’t know it,” Yeats said. “From what I am hearing around the state, from code enforcers and fire departments, we are seeing more of an issue here.”

Cities and health officials usually intervene when a home becomes so cluttered that it is a hazard to health and safety.

Richfield sees an average of about a dozen cases a year. Last year, 30 houses in Bloomington were deemed a public health nuisance and had to be cleaned out. Minnetonka has five to seven cases a year.

A Minneapolis housing official said the city has an average of 25 “real, real bad ones” each year, and Hennepin County sees eight to 12 cases annually in areas outside seven cities that have their own environmental health departments.

A thorny challenge

For cities, hoarding cases are a challenge. They’re time-consuming, and require staff to work with families, neighbors and social service agencies. For fire departments and emergency personnel, extreme hoarding poses a physical danger when they rush into a house and find it filled with debris.

While some cases grab headlines — such as the duplex in northeast Minneapolis that was razed last year after dead cats, animal feces and rotting garbage were found inside — more typical are homes that look perfectly normal from the street but are filled with clutter.

“We get reports from family members, pizza delivery people, inspectors who go in after a furnace is installed, or fire rescue and ambulance people,” said Charlie O’Brien, code compliance officer for Richfield. “Mostly, it is people who for one reason or another have run out of resources and assistance, and sometimes it’s elderly people who don’t have the physical or financial means to take care of the issue.”

Several officials said most hoarding cases involve older people.

But Yeats said the most-common thread is psychological. “The majority of people who hoard have unresolved trauma and loss in their lives,” she said. “If it’s not dealt with, it comes out sideways.”

Minnetonka community development director Julie Wischnack said her city proceeds carefully with hoarding cases. “Most of the time, there is some mental health issue, some challenge there,” she said.

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