Extreme hoarding can be a tough problem for government to tackle. But Scott County officials hope that new rules will make it easier for them to get people the help they need before it’s too late.
County officials are mulling the creation of a public health ordinance, following in the footsteps of four other metro area counties that already have one. It would give county officials new tools to intervene when the accumulation of trash and other unsanitary conditions pose a threat to public health — including first responders who may have to quickly make their way around a strange and cluttered home.
“We’re not talking about intervening with people’s right to be messy. This isn’t just messy,” said Lisa Brodsky, Scott County’s public health director. “These are really gross, unsanitary conditions. So the hope is we will be able to get in sooner, offer assistance sooner, before it gets to the point where it’s beyond disrepair or the individual just can’t live there anymore and they have to go to assisted living.”
Hennepin County’s public nuisance ordinance took effect in 2006. A public health nuisance is defined as “any condition which poses an immediate and direct hazard to human health if left unremedied,” including hazards due to the transmission of disease through animals or from clandestine lab sites such as a methamphetamine lab.
Scott County currently has limited options for dealing with such properties, especially if a homeowner isn’t cooperative. And cities in the county have a patchwork of regulations about public health nuisances.
Some cities have no regulations, while others such as Savage define public nuisances and even permit officials to enter a home without permission in extreme cases.
The proposed ordinance is still being crafted and will probably reach the County Board later this year. Brodsky said it would likely give county staffers the ability to write orders demanding that a home be improved in a certain time frame, as well as authority to enter nuisance homes.
Each city would need to adopt the ordinance following the county’s approval. “With varying ordinances throughout the county at the city level, it just becomes very difficult to be able to go into homes, inspect homes, etc.,” Brodsky said.
The county’s help extends beyond enforcement, however. Brodsky said they hope to have a “multidisciplinary team” ready to respond to nuisances, including adult protective services, health professionals, public health officials and law enforcement officers.
“It’s not just a goal of ordering a cleanup,” Brodsky said. “Because clearly there are some issues there that have led to it getting that bad.”
One case in Shakopee, which took 11 years to resolve, began with neighbors complaining about garbage and the city issuing citations to get it cleaned up, said Barb Hedstrom, Shakopee’s victim and community services coordinator.
Over time the problem grew worse, with a flooded basement, moldy walls, a bathtub used as a toilet and the smell of sewage drifting to nearby properties. Eventually, the county took legal action to appoint a guardian for the homeowner, who was diagnosed with a mental health condition, and moved him into a long-term care facility. The home had to be cleaned by a biohazard company.
“I’m hoping that with an ordinance that there can be an earlier intervention and services being available from a quicker perspective,” Hedstrom said. “Identifying properties, responding to properties in a uniform manner with this multidisciplinary approach.”
Brittani Schmidt, chairwoman of the Minnesota Hoarding Task Force, said hoarding cases tend to consume a lot of time and resources.
“We just haven’t had a way to work with people that hoard in a sustainable and effective manner,” said Schmidt, a public health nurse with Scott County. “So the nuisance ordinance would hopefully allow us to get in earlier and offer resources and try to mitigate some of the effects that hoarding can have.”
She said that in addition to rodents and pests that can interfere with nearby properties, hoarding poses risks for first responders. Homes where hoarding occurs burn faster than other homes, she said, and stacked materials pose a risk of falling on top of people walking through in an emergency.
“Anybody that is required to respond and come into this home for the residents’ safety is put at risk,” Schmidt said.