By Susan Laume:
Imagine sitting on your porch enjoying the gentle breeze of a pleasant summer evening… then being driven inside by odors when your neighbor opens his garage door… He’s a hoarder. What can be done? That’s a difficult question, but state Del. Mark Keam (D – 35) is committed to finding an answer.
Americans are curious about hoarding, as shown by the existence of television shows like “Extreme Clutter”, “Hoarders”, and “Confessions: Animal Hoarder. ” But if you live next door to a hoarder, the topic is not just a curiosity — it is a nuisance and, worse, a threat to health and safety.
Hoarders sometimes accumulate food or trash, creating unsanitary conditions that attract rodents and pests. Their piles of possessions may block egress, endangering themselves and any who enter the property. Hoarding increases the hazard of fires. Animal hoarding is not only unsafe but cruel – in some cases hundreds of pets have been collected and confined without adequate care.
Alerted by a constituent, Keam has looked into the problem and taken on the tough task of crafting solutions. “ It’s a multi-layered problem,” he points out. “ It includes societal health, legalities of non-discrimination in housing, and mental health, as well as public health and public safety. As such, all its layers must be attacked, not just one aspect, like more [building] inspections.”
Though hoarding is difficult to quantify and track, Fairfax County is believed to have a relatively high incidence for its population, with approximately 4,200 active hoarders and an average of 160 hoarding complaints per year. In fact, Fairfax County was instrumental in the recognition of hoarding as a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association.
Why here? Keam explains, “Hoarding typically shares the common factors of age and high income geography. Experts recognize Boston, San Francisco and Northern Virginia as active areas for hoarding with our high percentages of older, well-educated and wealthy residents. It’s a very complex, emerging problem that will only be growing bigger. Our society must deal with the base causes going forward.”
Keam’s vision: “I’d like to see Virginia become a national leader in addressing hoarding as a mental societal health issue. It may be this year, or next year….with Governor [Ralph] Northam having indicated his interest, I’m sure we can find the right best practices to fix the problem.”
Have you been touched by hoarding in some way, or have thoughts on issues not identified above? Keam is interested in hearing your experiences and suggestions. Feel free to comment on this story in The Blue View (first and last name required), or contact Del. Mark Keam’s office at DelMKeam@House.Virginia.gov. And watch for future reporting on tackling the threats that hoarders pose both to themselves and the public.
Susan Laume is a member of the Springfield District Democratic Committee and a director of the NoVA Coalition for Animals. With her dog, she works as a therapy dog team.