Hoarder task force ‘overwhelmed’ by new cases
A man's body is pulled from the remains of a hoarder's home on 23rd Avenue in Vancouver in October 2011. (CARMINE MARINELLI/ 24 HOURS FILE PHOTO)
A task force targeting Vancouver’s “hoarding” problem has so many cases the team can barely keep up.
Carli Edwards heads the city’s arm of the three-pronged anti-hoarder group that consists of Vancouver Coastal Health officials, city staff and fire inspectors.
Whether it’s piles of stuff stacked to the ceiling or garbage considered treasures by their owners, the team has seen it all.
The task force was formed in 2010 and it’s closed more than 250 cases, with another 100 ongoing investigations.
“We’ve been overwhelmed with the number of cases,” Edwards told 24 hours on Tuesday. “We haven’t been able to keep up as much as we would.”
She said it’s believed 2-5% of the current population has a problem of collecting too much stuff.
It wouldn’t be an issue if there wasn’t a safety risk, said fire department deputy chief Steve Laleune.
He said the problem is junk attracts rodents — which chew into wires causing fires. Other issues include piles of storage falling and trapping occupants underneath their weight, exits being blocked off and, in some cases, piles of stuff making it difficult to identify structural damage in a building that could collapse.
It’s not simply a matter of ordering the occupants to clean up, officials say.
“If you were to force a cleanup, the data shows in no time it will be re-hoarded,” Laleune said.
Often the process can take months or even years. That problem is compounded as many of the hoarders have mental health issues — that’s where Coastal Health officials step in.
But he pointed to an example in which a perfectly healthy man just “loves to collect speakers.”
“They’ve decided they’re going to collect lawnmowers or speakers … he’s got an unbelievable collection,” Laleune said.
“We helped him work through the process, make sure he’s living in a safe residence, that he has means of egress, he’s able to heat his house properly.”
He said public attention on the topic has helped. In late 2011, many in the city were shocked to learn that a man perished inside a burning home — in part because firefighters couldn’t get inside since doors were blocked.
“We’ve heard (tips) through postal workers, through neighbours, most of the time it’s through friends and relatives.”
Edwards said in extreme cases — there have been two so far — the city has ordered homes to be evacuated and boarded up.
“If it’s really bad, we’ll take the person and say, ‘You can’t sleep in your house anymore,’” she added.