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Unless there is an immediate health threat that requires the resident to leave — plumbing that isn’t working, extreme clutter that fills every room, rotting garbage or animal hoarding — cities move deliberately to remedy the situation, trying to balance health and safety with respect for the resident.
Wischnack said she couldn’t recall a case where a resident didn’t have something traumatic going on, like job loss or a death in the family.
“A lot of people are overwhelmed and don’t know what to do,” she said. “Or they don’t have family and caregivers, and are detached from social circles. It’s a lot of work, but we just try to give them their dignity.”
If the mess is bad and the resident is unable to handle the situation, cities get an order that allows them to hire a plumber or whatever is needed to make the house livable again, assessing the service to property taxes. If there is a safe place in the house while clutter is being reduced, residents often are allowed to stay.
Cleaning up can take months.
“Typically, they will want to look at what you’re throwing away,” Wischnack said. “We try to go room by room.”
In Richfield, O’Brien said his city has worked with residents who have cleaned up homes in two weeks and others where it took longer than a year. Both Richfield and Minnetonka follow up with residents who had hoarding problems, always calling first before visiting.
Mental health help
Increasingly, cities are working with mental health authorities and social service agencies to get help for hoarders.
Minneapolis recently dedicated a position to focus on housing violations on owner-occupied housing. That person’s duties include working with neighbors and family members to help hoarding residents figure out what to do.
Sometimes that means people have to move on to other options, such as assisted living.
Meetings of the hoarding task force have drawn attendees from around the state. The group is trying to increase awareness of hoarding, improve treatment and help communities deal with the problem.
At The Hoarding Project, 12 to 15 people are getting individual therapy at reduced rates and another 20 to 30 people are in support groups for hoarders and their families.
“Forced cleanups are expensive and don’t last,” Yeats said. “Code enforcement folks can tell me what houses they’ll be back at next year. They clean up, and after six months it can be as bad as it was before.
“If it’s a mental health disorder, you can’t just treat it as a public safety issue. We have to get at the underlying issues.”
Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380