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Riding on the wave of pop culture frenzy created by series like A&E’s Hoarders and TLC’s Hoarding: Buried Alive, Santa Barbara ServiceMaster Anytime presented a discussion on April 21 titled: “Collecting, Cluttering & Hoarding; When is hoarding a lease, sanitary code, or fire violation?”. According to a statement released by ServiceMaster Anytime, an estimated 2 million people in the country suffer from compulsive hoarding, and mental health groups that treat the condition say it is a classified obsessive-compulsive mental health disorder defined as the acquisition and inability to discard things.
Speakers at the event included Gina Sunseri, senior fire investigator from the Santa Barbara City Fire Department who presented a slide show containing photos taken from Santa Barbara homes of hoarders. She told about some extreme cases of hoarding she had observed over the years including a person who was so addicted to hoarding that the collection included a dead cat’s carcass. She also told a story about a woman in Las Vegas who was literally buried alive under junk and was found dead by police after four months. Sunseri answered questions from the audience of about 30 attendees about how the county deals with incidents of hoarding.
Justin Haagen, ServiceMaster Anytime community outreach and development chair, who organized the event, wanted to shed light on an the disorder which has only recently received public notice.
“We’ve been doing it for years, but it wasn’t called hoarding until the reality shows. Before, we wouldn’t get a call about it until the person passed away and we’d go over there to clean up their houses,” said Haagen. “Now, more and more we’re trying to work with the people and give them the help they need. In Santa Barbara, specifically, the majority of hoarders are typically women over sixty and usually educated, middle class residents, like teachers.”
The panel was organized with the goal of addressing the various facets of hoarding and included representatives ranging from psychologists, attorneys, Santa Barbara City Fire Department, and Adult Protective Services representatives. Speaker Jackie Quinn of Senior Planning Services delivered a more personal look at the disease and offered up stories of cases she’d witnessed involving hoarders.
“I had a case where I worked really closely with the woman and got a real feel for the debilitating disease,” said Quinn. “She was very artistic, so she had a lot of different items that some would call junk that she could make into certain types of artwork, as well as a lot of books and scrapbooks that were important her. I think she’d had a personal trauma when she was younger; often people are severely depressed when they become hoarders.”
She went on to describe the problems with the reality shows and the way they deal with hoarders. Quinn said that it is not enough to simply throw away the hoarded materials and get rid of the mess, but to routinely follow up with the affected hoarders and work with them to overcome their illness.