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SPECIAL COVERAGE: Living With Wildfires: San Diego Firestorm 10 Years Later

San Diego Searches For Ways To Deal With Hoarders

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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.

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.

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