Escaping the hoarding habit

17 May 2019 | 17 May 2019

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On a scale of one to nine, how cluttered would you say your home is?

Most of us could take a look around and agree that perhaps we needed to do a charity shop run, or have a spring clean. But what happens when you can’t do this? When every item in your home is loaded with significance, and you can’t possibly part with it? Or when you can’t even acknowledge that there are just too many things?

Clutter cards, which reflect these stages, are just one tool that we use at Sovereign, to try and help hoarders see the state of their own homes more clearly.

I spent fourteen months working with two people who are now self-acknowledged hoarders. But to begin with, neither of them would have recognised that the term applied to them. The process of getting to know them began slowly, which is the key to our strategy on dealing with hoarding.

My two cases were totally different in nature – one was fastidiously clean. The kitchen and living room were covered with dust sheets, the possessions, gathered over many years, were packed up neatly in boxes and ziplock bags, and yet the home was still dangerously overcrowded.

The other case was more random. Here, rubbish from the street laid alongside bulk purchases from budget shops; cases of bleach were perched on top of kerbside junk. This tenant had a brain injury combined with learning difficulties. Their understanding of the items that are necessary for day to day life was drastically skewed.

Statistics from the charity Hoarding UK estimate that only 5% of hoarders come into contact with professional help, as most hoarders live alone, maintaining isolated lifestyles.

Getting that first foot in the door is difficult. Despite the difference between my two hoarders, the situation with both residents was the same: if they continued to hoard, their tenancy would be in danger. The state of their homes meant that they were putting themselves and others at risk, from infestations, from fire or worse. As a housing services manager, it’s my job to ensure that both our asset and our tenant are protected, to the best of my ability.

In the past, legal enforcement or forcible removal of goods was our go-to quick fix solution. But the steps we use to help people who are hoarding are very different now, as the condition has now been included separately in the Care Act. Although extreme cases could still be considered anti-social behaviour (ASB), poor property condition or even neglect, we really don’t want things to get to that point.

We recognise that hoarding is a mental health condition and if you force people to take radical steps to declutter when they aren’t ready, the trauma of losing their possessions tends to mean only that they quickly gather a replacement hoard, that is often even larger than before. New methods centre around time – time to build up trust, to help a hoarder see that they have a problem, and to support them to make changes to the way they live on a long-term basis.

So, going back to the scale of one to nine. At the beginning, the two people I worked with had houses that were tipping the top end of that scale, but slowly and gradually we made progress. The fire service visited both properties, helping the residents to make sure that they at least had a clear escape route to a window in case of an emergency.

One tenant could now sleep in their own bed for the first time in four years, and the other opened up to me about their worries and agreed to start clearing their house, one step at a time. I want to treat people the way I’d like to be treated myself, with care and attention, listening and talking to them adult to adult, helping them to find their own way out of their hoarding habit.

 

TIPS FOR TACKLING HOARDING

  1. Think about how you can find hoarding. We receive a regular report that tells us if residents haven’t had any repairs in five years. From this, we’ll arrange a tenancy visit to make sure there are no problems. 99% of the time, everything’s fine and the property’s in good order. But sometimes, we find an issue such as hoarding.
  2. Share knowledge between your teams. Make sure that those out doing repairs on your trades team are aware that hoarding is a mental health issue, and give tips on how to spot homes where hoarding is taking place (for example, flies, permanently drawn curtains, bad smells).
  3. Build up trust – once hoarding has been discovered, start with weekly or fortnightly visits and keep them short but regular.
  4. Use the clutter index rating. When they’re comfortable with you, ask them to look at the nine pictures and rate how cluttered they think their home is. Work with them to understand that higher ratings represent a dangerous situation, but take care to use non-judgemental language.
  5. Engage with other professionals. Introducing a visit from a fire safety expert can help people to recognise how serious their hoarding problem has become.
  6. Investigate whether it’s a safeguarding case. Can your resident cook, sleep, and wash? Can they use the rooms for their intended purpose? If not, making contact with the social services team may be the answer.
  7. Find a ‘hook’. Is there something that makes your resident pleased or proud? Try to find a way to encourage a passion that is not directly related to their possessions. For example, a noticeboard could help them to display particularly special letters or certificates.
  8. Take photos. Take photos of each room and then ask them to divide the room into sections. Your resident should concentrate on clearing this small area for a set period of time, until your next visit. This makes it very clear what’s expected of them and the timescale they should be working to.
  9. Give them a positive choice. Provide boxes and labels, for example: ‘keep’, ‘charity shop’ and ‘rubbish’. When one area is cleared they can move onto another. This way they’re choosing what to keep and where their other belongings are going.
  10. Keep it simple. Don’t set your resident tasks that are too large to handle – set an alarm to make sure they don’t try and do too much in one go, as this can be overwhelming.
  11. If everything fails, try twice more. If you get to the point where enforcement action is needed, try to take two supportive actions to accompany this, as evidence will be needed if you proceed down an enforcement route. Enforced clearance is a last resort.

Other useful contacts include:

You can also find out more information and how to access help on our hoarding page.

This blog was originally published on HQN Housing Management Network.

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