skip to main content

Listen

Read

Watch

Schedules

Programs

Events

Give

Account

Donation Heart Ribbon

San Diego Searches For Ways To Deal With Hoarders

Audio

Aired 3/16/10

Society is fascinated with people who acquire huge amounts of junk they can't throw away. But finding a way to deal with hoarders is not entertaining. Hoarding can cause neighborhood nuisances and public safety problems. That's why people have come together in San Diego County to try to create a consistent and effective community response to hoarding.

— Society is fascinated with people who acquire huge amounts of junk they can't throw away. And it's spawned at least one reality TV show, called Hoarders. But finding a way to deal with hoarders is not entertaining. Hoarding can cause neighborhood nuisances and public safety problems. That's why people have come together in San Diego county to try to create a consistent and effective community response to hoarding.

Piles of "stuff" are heaped throughout this hoarder's house.
Enlarge this image

Above: Piles of "stuff" are heaped throughout this hoarder's house.

If you lived next door to a person who's home was a mess, and that mess was bursting out of the house and onto his lawn or driveway, you might complain to city hall. Complain enough, and word may eventually get to Diane Silva-Martinez. She's chief deputy for code enforcement with the San Diego City Attorney's office, and she says hoarding comes to her attention once it's gotten very bad.

"Usually when the case is out of control. Usually when a neighborhood has had it. Typically when a case comes to me it's from a code inspector or it's directly from the community and the property has been in that condition for many, many years," she said. "So you have rats now that are affecting the neighborhood. There's concern for the person's safety inside."

Martinez is one of many people who attended a conference on hoarding this month at the Balboa Park Club. The San Diego Hoarding Collaborative convened the conference. The collaborative was formed last summer with the goal of developing a community response to hoarding which can be used in all jurisdictions. Cities are already dealing with hoarders, of course. Allen Edwards is a La Mesa code enforcement officer who's seen his share of problem properties.

"It can be an extreme where their plumbing is out. Their water is shut off. We don't know how they're using the bathroom. We don't know how they bathe but their neighbors maybe have a clue that they're doing this in the backyard," said Edwards.

Chuck Strickland is the La Mesa fire marshall. He said the sheer amount of junk hoarders keep in their homes creates a fire hazard that's very dangerous to residents and to fire fighters.

"Firefighters are going in there and the fires are far more intense," said Strickland. "It's far more difficult to find victims inside there. They have things falling on them. So the likelihood of somebody being injured or dying is just dramatically increased."

Psychologists say hoarders have a psychiatric problem that's closely related to obsessive compulsive disorder. A large number of problem hoarders are old folks. Mark Odom is a clinical social worker in Orange County. He said he's seen cases involving people who are bed-bound, who spend their days ordering new stuff.

"They're going on the Internet. Or they're using home shopping network or QVC in order to bring things in," said Odom. "And the reason they do this is they thrive, they really enjoy acquiring things. And then it arrives at their house and it sits in their living room, unopened."

In the most serious cases, cities in San Diego county are able to file civil injunctions against homeowners and hire teams to clean up their houses. But Chuck Strickland said that's not a solution.

"As a fire marshall I can go in and have a clean-up order on the house and get it all cleaned out," he said. "And guess what -- it's going to just start filling back up again. It's like taking an alcoholic and emptying out his bottle and saying 'OK. Your problem's fixed.'"

If hoarding is a psychiatric problem, treatment is the ultimate solution. Sanjaya Saxena is a psychiatrist at UC San Diego and a renowned expert in compulsive hoarding. He said if city authorities can compel hoarders to get treatment, it does make a difference.

"Most people who get treatment get better. So the idea that compulsive hoarding is untreatable or doesn't respond well is not true. If you actually focus treatment and use one of the newer treatment modalities that's tailored for compulsive hoarding, most people get better," said Saxena.

Diane Silva-Martinez, with the San Diego City attorney's office, says she has seen cases in which problem hoarders do get better, and the neighborhood problem is actually solved. She says the best cases are when people have family or a church who can help them clean house and learn to keep it that way.

Comments

Avatar for user 'NorthParker'

NorthParker | March 17, 2010 at 5:55 p.m. ― 4 years, 5 months ago

Tom, could you follow up on this comment, please? " If you actually focus treatment and use one of the newer treatment modalities that's tailored for compulsive hoarding, most people get better," said Saxena." While I recognize that drugs can be helpful for some people, for the most part, I distrust them--having used Elavil and Zoloft, to name two. There was another I tried that didn't work either, but the name escapes me.

Further, from what I've read, some forms of hoarding, such as Diogenes Syndrome (see the info re a Bouvier sister, and the resultant Gray Gardens), are not curable. They are like ocd on steroids.

( | suggest removal )

Avatar for user 'spyyyyyke'

spyyyyyke | April 3, 2010 at 12:49 p.m. ― 4 years, 5 months ago

NorthParker: The best and most effective treatment for hoarding does NOT involve any medication whatsoever, and has no invasive element. Hoarding is an anxiety disorder that causes a deficiency in the brain's executive function. Ironically, most hoarders are perfectionists, and the hoarding develops because they are overly-anxious about making a mistake and discarding something that turns out to be useful or valuable. Their brain is unable to grasp that just because they can think of some remote, even absurd use for an item, it does not mean they are responsible for the item being used in that way. ("I can repair this cooking pot that has no handles, no lid, is all dented and warped, and then someone can use it.") They also worry about putting something away in the "wrong" place. Of course, there is no absolute right or wrong place to put things away, but the hoarder doesn't know that. The hoarder frets about where to put something, so much so that she becomes overwhelmed and unable to make a decision at all about it. So she puts the item down, anywhere, but believes she will get back to it and put it away "someday" as soon as she figures out the best place to put it. ~~ The treatment that is most effective and non-invasive is cognitive behavior therapy, in the form of exposure and response prevention. The hoarder can do this on his or her own, though it is best to have the treatment tailored to the hoarder's particular situation. The basic concept, WAY oversimplified, is for the hoarder to intentionally expose herself to the situation that causes anxiety, such as discarding something or putting something away where she cannot see it. At first the exposure will be dreadful and almost impossible, or even impossible, for the hoarder to tolerate, but after going through the process for a period of time, the anxiety starts to go away, little by little. Eventually the hoarder is able to tolerate the anxiety of making a mistake, and gain regain her functioning in the world. ~~ The treatment process is about the brain, not the stuff. If the focus is on decluttering the stuff, like the TV shows, then the hoarder's brain remains cluttered with its irrational thoughts and the clutter will build up again, because nothing has affected the disordered thought process. The focus must be on the brain, on the cognitive aspect of the treatment.

( | suggest removal )

Avatar for user 'SallySmothers'

SallySmothers | June 14, 2011 at 10:48 p.m. ― 3 years, 2 months ago

Boy, ol' Fire Marshall Bill, er, Chuck Strickland, must be one of those "compassionate conservatives" I keep hearing about, though they don't actually exist--It really seems as if he is advising members of the community NOT to try to help hoarding sufferers to clean up their messes in order to comply with code. Ahh, they'll just do it again, hopeless cases, blah blah blah, seems to be his message here.

So what does he propose should be done with hoarders? Everyone needs to live SOMEwhere; Does he think they should all be evicted, forced to live out of over-packed shopping carts on the streets? Jail? Or perhaps we could just round 'em all up and shoot 'em!

( | suggest removal )