If the reality TV show Hoarders ever wanted to shoot in Vancouver, it would find plenty of material.
And it's not just a problem for low-income residents of the Downtown Eastside, where health inspectors identified a concentration of cases.
"This is all over the city," said Carli Edwards, the city's assistant director of inspections.
The city's hoarding task force started in late 2010 and evolved in May into a "hoarding action response team" composed of a property use inspector, fire inspector, and two mental health workers supplied by Vancouver Coastal Health as part of an 18month trial. The city has pulled inspectors from other areas to concentrate on hoarding cases, so the team isn't costing the city extra money.
The inspectors identify risks to health and safety, set deadlines and consequences for people who hoard while the mental health workers provide support to reduce the risks. Inspectors typically ask hoarders to remove combustibles stored against a structure, remove items that block a sprinkler and to take pest control measures within set timelines that range from 48 hours to three months, depending on the severity of the problem.
Those who don't comply typically face a $200 fee for fire reinspection, prosecution for fines up to $2,000, or a bill for cleanup done by a contractor hired by the city. Most cleanups cost $2,000 to $5,000, but have been as high as $15,000, according to Edwards.
"We will leave people alone as long as they are not posing a risk to themselves and others... Many times, we get to a place with the cases where we tell people OK, clear pathways to the exit and clear pathways to the kitchen and get the things off the stove, and then we're done," Edwards said. "The goal isn't a clean and tidy house. The goal is a safe home."
The response team is participating in a study at the University of B.C. that will evaluate the team's effectiveness and find ways to assist landlords, neighbours, friends and family to help hoarders stay safe and retain their tenancy.
Sheila Woody, a professor in UBC's department of psychology who is leading two studies on hoarding, is helping the team identify circumstances that could influence the effectiveness of their work.
"For example, some people have a physical disability that makes it really hard for them to stay on top of the clutter in their house," Woody said. "So if we keep track of who has a physical disability or a mental disability, that kind of thing, then we know better what kind of resources are needed to support these people, but also it will just help us predict outcomes better."
The city dealt with 96 cases of hoarding last year before the response team started operating in the spring. Edwards anticipates handling more cases this year. "We're not really ready to take a full case load just yet," she said.
Residents can call 311 to report unsafe conditions to the city.
Woody and her psychology students are accepting referrals to low-cost group treatment for hoarding over the next three weeks. Treatment will be offered on a sliding scale and the 20 sessions will be based on principles of cognitive therapy. For more information, phone the UBC psychology clinic at 6048223005.
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