Hidden hoarders: How do you rescue people from the mess they made?

PORTLAND, Ore. - On Tuesday morning, a mobile home in Battle Ground burned to the ground. Penny Davis, 53, died of smoke inhalation.

On Wednesday morning, a house in Portland caught fire. Nobody was hurt, but firefighters spent a great deal more time in the burning home than they wanted to.

In both cases, crews pointed to one glaring, avoidable contributing factor: Excessive clutter.

Hoarders, to put it simply.

It could be that hoarding is a relatively new problem.

It could also be that it's only come into the open recently.

It could be that the diminished mental health services have left hoarders without the help they need.

Either way, social workers and emergency crews see it as an emerging, complex problem with potentially devastating ramifications not just for hoarders but also for those around them.

"It's certainly a concern that we have," said Portland Fire Bureau Lt. Rich Chatman. "Not only for the folks that live in those homes, but the surrounding homes, our firefighters

"It's a priority to us because it really does pose a risk."

The horrors of hoarding: 'I saved my daughter's umbilical cord'

MaryBeth Miles still has a hard time throwing things away.

She does it anyway.

She does it because she knows the hell her life will become if she goes back to a life wasted on hoarding. She does it because she knows real compulsion.

"If I got rid of things, I was very, very afraid that I would forget things that had happened," she said.

"I had saved my daughter's umbilical cord. People don't save their kids' umbilical cords. But I was so afraid to throw that away, like I would forget the experience of cutting that as she came into the world."

Hoarding was long thought to be a form of obsessive compulsive disorder. Recently, the "bible of psychiatry" reclassified it, giving hoarding its own category in an effort to provide better treatment for those who suffer from it.

The technical definition is this: "Persistent difficulty discarding or parting with possessions, regardless of their actual value."

In practice, it's much messier. Nobody's sure why it happens, or how it starts. Picture narrow walkways winding through huge stacks of clutter - stacks of just about anything you can imagine.

Christi Bird, who works for the non-profit Senior Citizens Council of Clackamas County, has seen things she can't forget.

"We've got a man who has collected 12 toasters, 32 knives - one is not enough - six ladders", she said. "We had a woman that hoarded dozens of eggs - 50 dozen eggs in her basement.

"We had a couple clients from the Holocaust who else saves body bags and C-rations? They escaped, but they were always looking for an escape route in case the Nazis came again. And you can't reassure them enough. "

Rescuers who can't rescue

The messes will break your heart, but they also pose a significant problem for rescue workers.

The piles are a perfect accelerate if a fire breaks out. They also make it extremely difficult for fire crews and paramedics to remove people during a fire or medical emergency.

"It's easy to get kind of disoriented, even in a building you know, when there's smoke and you're not able to see," said Clackamas County Fire Lt. Ted Willard. "But it just makes it that much worse when it's a building you're unfamiliar with and there's tons of extra stuff. You're unable to move equipment in to properly search, (you're) unable to move well."

Clackamas County ran a drill recently in which it filled a house with junk and filled it with smoke to simulate a hoarder situation. It's part of a ramped-up effort on the part of several local rescue agencies to deal with what's becoming a significant problem.

Willard said he's seen about two dozen such houses in his eight years on the job.

"It's incredibly frustrating," he said. "As you can see, we'll just start moving stuff and we'll do whatever we can to get back there. You can't see a thing.

"Even with our systematic approach, it's just really difficult to complete a search in a situation like this."

Rescue workers say their jobs would be easier if they knew ahead of time they were heading to a hoarder situation.

Behind the scenes, firefighters share what information they have among themselves. But privacy concerns make it difficult to compile comprehensive lists of hoarders.

"At the end of the day we're here to serve our citizens," Chatman said. "So if we do that in such a way that we harm them in a completely different respect - where it has to do with their privacy - then at the end of the day we haven't done our job. So we really do take these issues very seriously."

Seeds of a solution

Multnomah County Adult Protective Services gets about 8,500 calls every year for abuse and neglect. About 1,500 of those cases are what social workers term self-neglect. Of those, about 40 are hoarders.

In June, Multnomah County convened the very early stages of a multi-agency task force - firefighters, social services, health - with the long-term goal of looking for ways to work within HIPAA privacy laws.

During the course of investigating this story, KATU News dug up a solution that's been used in Seattle and Minnesota, and is the brainchild of a group called The Hoarding Project.

The solution is elegantly simple - rather than compiling a list of names of hoarders, agencies compile a list of problem addresses.

It's only one tool in the box for the task force - which will likely be in full swing late this year - but it's a start.

"I really do think it's one of those unnoticed, unspoken situations," said Peggy Brey, the director of Multnomah County Health Aging and Disability Service Division. "There's shame related to it. These are people. These are individuals who are just trying to get by, who are trying to live their lives, and we really want them to be safe."

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