Tuesday, May 20, 2014
By James Lomuscio
It’s the stuff of reality television that always seems to occur elsewhere and often appears more staged than real—hoarding.
But to hear local officials tell it, hoarding is a local reality with at least 10 known cases in Westport and two in Weston, enough for the Westport-Weston Health District (WWHD) to recently announce the formation of the Safer Homes Task Force, a 10-member group comprising social workers and first responders.
According to Loren Pace, WWHD public health nurse and task force coordinator, the group of Westport and Weston town department representatives began to address the problem informally in June 2012. They have been meeting monthly and have just recently has gone public. Their next monthly meeting is set Tuesday, May 27 at 1:30 p.m. at WWHD offices at 180 Bayberry Lane.
“Our main objective is to protect the public health and safety of the client, the first responders, and the community,” Pace said.
Sarah Heath, assistant director of Westport’s Department of Human Services and task force member, noted that the disorder of hoarding has only recently come to the forefront. It was not until May 18, 2013 that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders classified it as a mental illness, she said.
“It’s one thing for somebody to be eccentric or wanting to collect items,” Heath said. “But it becomes a problem when it reaches a point where family relations are breaking down, and rooms essential to their well being, like the kitchen and bathroom, are so full, so filled with things they can’t get in them.”
Heath said that most of the people her department learns about are seniors and live alone, “and we hear about them through a neighbor or a family member who’s frustrated, contacts us and asks what we can do.”
And that’s the hard part, task force members concede, as they walk a fine line between wanting to help someone clean our their homes while respecting privacy and avoiding government overreach.
“Its very difficult for us to make a cold call,” she said. “They may get offended. We can’t force them to clean up their homes.
“Most are old people, and some are in their 50s,” Heath added. “The challenge comes when we see they’re probably not living safely, and they choose to live that way. We have to start making relationships with the people when we can, make a relationship and build trust.”
According to Pace, hoarding not only puts the hoarder at risk, as was the legendary case of the two Collyer brothers. In 1947, Homer and Langley Collyer were hoarders founded dead in their Manhattan home, buried beneath an eclectic collection of books, bicycles, furniture, papers, even booby traps to keep away intruders.
“It would be devastating if there were a fire in their homes,” Pace said about local hoarders. “I don’t think the firefighters could get to them. They’re hoarding a lot of combustible things like paper, old boxes of whatever, old food, and there are dirty dishes.”
Barbara Butler, Westport’s director of human services, said her department sometimes learns about hoarders from first responders, such as EMS crews, who go on emergency calls and report the home’s condition.
Westport Police Capt. John Calka, task force member, stressed that his department’s involvement is not punitive, and “it’s not an criminal enforcement issue.”
“We’re the primary first responders in town, and it would be the same as it is with any other social issue,” Calka said.
“We notify human services if there’s a problem. Our basic part is to support the other agencies, to act as reporters. We go to homes on ambulance calls, and the condition may be such that we feel social services could intervene.”
Westport Fire Department Lt. Brett Kirby, also a task force member, underscored the dangers hoarders’ homes pose to firefighters.
“I went to a seminar, and we learned about the risks that are presented to firefighters when you respond to a fire at a hoarder’s home,” Kirby said.
He added that prior to the task force, his department would also notify human services about specific cases.
Pace said that her group’s short-term goals are “to work on our policies and procedures as a group for when we get referrals, and how we will handle those.”
“Our long term goals are to find funding since most of the people we find are older, and to clean out a home is extremely expensive,” Pace said.
But before than can happen, individuals have to agree to accept help, to admit there is a problem.
“We can’t force them,” said Butler. “We do everything we can to persuade people. It’s really the art of persuasion.”
Posted 05/20/14 at 09:16 PM Permalink