Evicting hoarders

Tuesday, May 3, 2011
San Francisco Bay Guardian
San Francisco Bay Guardian

People who collect massive amounts of stuff in their apartments often suffer from a mental disability that causes them to become hoarders. Even so, they can face eviction — despite state laws that protect renters with disabilities. And when hoarders get evicted, they usually become homeless.

"Hoarding behaviors may result in a landlord issuing an eviction notice on the basis that the tenant has created a nuisance, fire hazard, or other danger in the building. If the tenant is diagnosed as disabled, the tenant may notify the landlord of the disability and request the landlord provide a reasonable accommodation to enable the tenant to remain in the apartment rather than being evicted," reads a recent report from San Francisco's Mental Health Association, which is seeking to educate renters, landlords, and the general public on the issue.

Evictions in San Francisco are on the rise. Between March 1, 2010 and Feb. 28, 2011, 1,370 evictions were filed, an 8 percent rise from 1,269 evictions the previous year. The Federal Fair Housing Act (FHA) and California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) offer protections to those who have a disability, but landlords say there are liability issues associated with excessive hoarding.

Tenants can fight evictions by asking their landlords for a "reasonable accommodation" whose duration depends on the situation. A reasonable accommodation could be a plan that requires 30 days of cleaning and support service for hoarders in an effort to avoid eviction.

According to Mayoclinic.com, hoarding is labeled an obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). But many researchers consider it a distinct mental health problem that can be treated with therapy or counseling. California law defines a disability as a physical or mental impairment that limits one or more life activities, such as walking, seeing, hearing, working, learning, or caring for oneself.

Sandra Stark, 66, hasn't allowed anyone in her home for five years. She collects kitchenware and antiques. Like most hoarders, she started collecting after a traumatic event. It occurred when she was in her 30s and was gaining weight. Stark had never heard of the term "hoarder" until she watched a special on The Oprah Winfrey Show.

She claims her hoarding is a symptom of depression and disability, not OCD. "I feel like, with my weight, the clutter is a barrier between me and the world that hurt me," she told us.

Before TV shows uncovered the lives of hoarders, family and friends often were the ones to call for help. These days, hoarders often seek help themselves. A&E's Hoarders receives 1,000 submissions every month. After we spoke to some hoarders, they were all willing to seek change.

MHA recognized the problem and created a task force in 2007. Its goal was to build a plan of action to combat compulsive hoarding in San Francisco. The task force puts the costs of compulsive hoarding at more than $6 million per year. In 2009, the task force completed its report and estimated that between 12,000 and 25,000 residents in San Francisco struggle with this condition.

Most landlords try not to evict hoarding tenants right away. "Landlords may be compassionate and, in many cases, I believe, try hard to prevent evictions. However, they still have liability insurance and strict guidelines to follow," said Tim Ballard, a social work supervisor for the city. "It is their responsibility to protect the other tenants, and the painful result used as a means of harm reduction is often the legal option of eviction proceedings."

He said the heavy cleaning required on a hoarder's home can cost between $6,000 and $8,000 and can include removing trash to create safety in their home. The largest amount spent was $16,000. Currently, Ballard has 300 clients who are hoarders or clutterers in San Francisco.

On March 10, MHA hosted its 13th Conference on Hoarding and Cluttering. Keynote speaker Christiana Bratiotis, who has her doctorate in social work and is director of the Hoarding Research Project, defined compulsive hoarding as the "acquisition of, and failure to discard, a large number of possessions that appear to be useless or of limited value."

Michael Badolato, administrative assistant of Broderick Street Adult Residential Facility, attended to find a reasonable approach to deal with a hoarding resident living in his facility. "The challenge of hoarding is the mental health issue involved," he said. Other attendees included educators, landlords, healthcare workers, attorneys, and hoarders themselves.

One panel discussion topic was how hoarding and cluttering are portrayed in the media. The panel included Michael Gause, associate director of MHA; Robin Zasio, a physician on A&E's Hoarders; and Kari Peterson, an organizer from Hoarding: Buried Alive. Hoarders was created to show people in crisis and prevent the behaviors through the show.

The panelists claim that in order to show what the crisis is, a sensational aspect is involved. Ceci Garnett, whose mother was featured in an episode of Hoarders, says knowing that others are out there is "worth it to let people know they are not alone.

"And at least now there is treatment," she continued. "We have to risk sensationalism to start a conversation."

Ray Cleary, who was on season one of TLC's Buried Alive, also appeared on the panel. Featured before and after treatment, he is still in the process of recovering. "I didn't have to throw everything away," he says. "I still have boxes and don't know what to do with them."

Another hoarder, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid eviction, was critical of the media attention on hoarding. "It's a cult. People are going to make a career off my circumstance — making it a disease."

These people have "already decided it's a pre-mental disease," she continued.

Inside her home near Van Ness Avenue, a small path led from the door to her living room. By the door hung green bead necklaces from years of parades; yellowing stacks of paper filled every space in the rooms. An information junkie, she collects newspapers and books. A San Francisco resident for 45 years, she used to be homeless and has suffered from a head injury. "Throwing something away is like throwing away memory — and that means it's gone forever," she says.

When she was homeless, her belongings went to storage. But when she got housing, she couldn't throw anything away. Everyone she knows who has suffered from a head injury has this problem as well, she says, claiming it comes from gradually mixed emotional issues from losses and her health.

For years she tried to find someone to help her recycle or donate items, but she couldn't find the help she needed, even from her case manager. Other hoarders claim that most caseworkers aren't aware of their condition and assume they just need to throw everything out at once — something hoarders don't feel they can easily do.

Her landlord isn't involved with the property and doesn't know of the situation. She would like someone to sit and accompany her as she cleans, but she doesn't know of any service that provides this. During the interview, she picked up a phone call from someone who was going to stop by later to help. "But they usually flake on me," she acknowledged. Her hoarding, she says, is part of a physical health issue, not a mental health problem.

But San Francisco does offer places such as the MHA conference to discuss the issue. Hoarders' Dr. Zasio says the show helps the people who are willing to go on TV. In exchange for going public, the network pays for six months aftercare, including services such as home repairs and therapy sessions. Although the network recognizes that it gains ratings by sensationalizing the condition for 44 minutes, it also wants to raise public awareness.

Of the 1,370 evictions in San Francisco in the past year, 442 cases were prompted by a breach of rental agreement and 271 cases were for committing a nuisance. These cases could include hoarding, but the city doesn't specify that in its statistics.

As Teresa Friend from the Homeless Advocacy Project said: "If the person with a disability including hoarding is without family or friends to turn to or is not part of a legal intervention process and evicted, they will end up homeless."

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