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.
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.”