Filth, waste, stench in hoarders' dwellings

BRONWYN TORRIE
Last updated 05:00 23/01/2012
Karori hoarder home
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HAZARD: One room in a Karori home which had to be professionally cleaned after being deemed to be a health risk by Wellington City Council.

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Homes of extreme hoarders have been deemed insanitary and slapped with cleansing orders by local councils.

Inspectors found piles of rubbish, food waste, cat faeces and cardboard at a Lower Hutt home where the floors, bedding and furniture were soiled; and masks had to be worn at a filthy Wellington home where the toilet was blocked and sorted piles of rubbish were higher than the furniture.

Several buckets full of human waste were found at a Feilding house, where a man was living in a shed while his dying wife lived inside the house.

Police called Manawatu District Council to assist and a cleansing order was issued for the house to be "rendered fit for occupation", according to information obtained under the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act.

Relatives spent at least two weeks scrubbing the house before it passed the grade last June and the man could move back in. Lime was spread on the ground where the buckets were placed to neutralise any human waste that may have spilled.

Mid-Central Regional Public Health was made aware of the case but did not act because family members had stepped in.

Staff had intervened in similar hoarding-type situations where a person was deemed infirm or neglected and not capable of keeping their house clean, senior health protection officer Peter Wood said.

Local authorities have the power under the Health Act 1956 to order residential property owners to clean up extreme filth if the situation is deemed to be a health risk.

Property owners can be prosecuted for non-compliance and fined up to $500.

Wellington City Council dealt with a severe case in October, where a toilet was not working at a man's home. Staff had to wear masks because of the putrid smell in the Karori house, which was filled with mounds of rubbish, a council spokesman said. Commercial cleaners were brought in and the council is still chasing the man for $2500.

Hutt City Council issued 27 informal letters last year to homeowners, including one to a man who was a compulsive hoarder. He died in hospital shortly after the inspection in October but his family agreed to clean the Fairfield house within two weeks, a council spokesman said.

"It's not a situation that we come across every day but we do receive complaints from time to time relating to compulsive hoarders who appear to be quite common in the majority of cities.

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"Often these people live alone and it is sometimes difficult to trace family relatives."

Compulsive hoarders often suffered anxiety, depression or obsessive compulsive disorder, Christchurch psychologist Fran Vertue said. "There are lots of reasons why people hoard, and obviously at the point that it impedes on their ability to function, it becomes a disorder."

For some, the piles of stuff became their friend if they did not have human contact, others felt pleasure when they acquired something new, and most had underlying mental health problems.

People should be concerned if friends or family start collecting items that had no intrinsic value, such as newspapers, labels or cans, Dr Vertue said. Some hoarders got the same thrill from acquiring things as a kleptomaniac did from stealing. By and large these people did not present to mental health services so the problem remained hidden.

Phobic Trust chief executive Marcia Read said it was extremely traumatic for a hoarder to have their "treasures" stripped from them.

PENSIONER 'TOO OLD' TO CLEAN HIS HOUSE

His frail, 64-year-old face contorts at the thought of it – he did not want to live confined to the garden shed, go to the toilet in buckets and survive on food scraps – but because it was his dying wife's final wish, he reluctantly obeyed.

When Manawatu District Council staff showed up on the Feilding pensioner's doorstep in May, several buckets of human waste were found outside.

Inside, mounds of rubbish made it nearly impossible to move between rooms, clothes were strewn on the floor and the furniture, dirty dishes sat in the sink next to bench tops completely covered with bags of rubbish, filthy towels, jars and pill bottles.

The man's tale of how he came to live this way is not pleasant.

He and his wife moved into the house in 1988 but struggled to maintain it, due, in part, to the chronic health problems that had plagued both of them for much of their lives.

Weeks before his wife died of heart disease and dehydration in May, aged 61, she knew her time had come but could not bear for anyone to watch her die, the man said. So he retreated to his shed, surviving on "nibbles, milk and molasses" and doing what he had to do, to give her some space.

The unsanitary conditions in which they were living came to the council's attention after the woman's death, but the man does not believe the way they lived was particularly unhygienic, nor did it contribute to his wife's death.

"I believe there are others out there living worse than we were."

He denied any suggestion he was hoarding. Rather, he was just too old and fragile to do anything about the clutter, he said.

"I'm not sloppy or careless – just hopeless."

The man said that if the right person were to knock on his door, he would not turn away an offer of help, but he admitted to having turned away agencies who had tried to help him in the past, because they were "not polite or respectful".

- The Dominion Post

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