Spurred by a high-profile hoarding incident in the Beach this past summer, the City of Toronto is hiring two full-time staff to co-ordinate the response to extreme cases.
Wearing Hazmat gear, a team of OSPCA inspectors trapped several cats and cleaned up debris at a Beech Avenue home in September after neighbours complained of a strong urine smell.
Ward 32 Councillor Mary-Margaret McMahon said several city agencies were involved, including Toronto fire inspectors who had dealt with hoarding problems at the property for more than five years.
“What we found was that some people in some departments were connecting, and others were not,” said McMahon, who brought forward the council motion to create the co-ordinating office together with Eglinton-Lawrence Councillor Josh Colle. McMahon said councillors in just about every ward of the city have faced similar problems.
On Christmas Day, a man in his 60s died after a two-alarm fire broke out in his Queen Street East apartment. Fire officials said shortly afterwards that the apartment was cluttered, making it hard to find him.
“The people we are dealing with are very vulnerable,” said McMahon, adding that hoarding is not the black-and-white issue many people perceive it to be.
Felicea Nobile agrees.
Nobile co-chairs the Durham Region Hoarding Coalition, which four years ago began co-ordinating 33 city and social services agencies in Durham, ranging from bylaw officers to children’s aid, landlords to public health workers.
“With hoarding, you can’t do it all at once,” Nobile said. While evictions or forced clean-ups are necessary in cases where people are seriously at risk, she said a hard-line approach often means problems simply happens again later.
“It takes time,” she said. “Sometimes it’s hard just getting in the house.”
In one case, Nobile said case workers in Durham met a person at their front door several times over a six-month period before they established trust and were invited inside to help.
“You have to work with these individuals,” Nobile said, adding that ideally, there would be dedicated mental health or social workers who can do follow-up visits. But funding such positions is difficult, she said.
James Hind, a fire inspector in London, Ontario, said funding is an issue there as well. Few agencies can do free clean-ups or provide case workers, either for lack of funds or because the person with the hoarding problem refuses help.
Hind said his job has been made easier since he began working together with a mental health worker, who can give the long-term attention needed to avoid “repeat customers.”
A 2009 study of problem hoarding in Melbourne, Australia found 70 per cent of cases involved people 50 or older, and that clothes, letters, bills, books and magazines are the most commonly hoarded items.
The study includes a survey of 48 hoarding-related fires, and found that more fire fighters and pumpers were required to put out those fires, on average, which were also more likely to spread through multiple rooms given all the combustible material.