Vernon action team reaches out to hoarders

A new response action team in Vernon aims to address the health and safety risks involved with hoarding while reaching out to individuals needing assistance. - thinkstock photo
A new response action team in Vernon aims to address the health and safety risks involved with hoarding while reaching out to individuals needing assistance.
— image credit: thinkstock photo

Reality TV is dominated by scenes of hoarding but it’s not entertainment for individuals actually living in those circumstances or those around them.

And increasingly, local governments and service agencies are recognizing that hoarding is a psychological condition that can have a widespread community impact.

“It’s a mental health issue,” said Annette Sharkey, with Vernon’s Partners in Action.

“It’s not as easy as telling someone to clean up.”

It’s believed that hoarding affects about two to four per cent of the general population and it can also be associated with depression and obsessive compulsive disorder. It appears to affect more men than women.

Neighbours are often the first ones to become aware of a hoarding problem, either because of foul odours emanating from trash, rodents or a growing pile of building materials, gardening supplies, vehicles and other items.

But often what the general public can’t see is far worse.

“There have been people who have to go outside of their home and go through a window to open a door because there is so much junk inside,” said Clint Kanester, Vernon’s bylaw compliance manager.

Beyond posing a health risk, the collection of paper, wood and other items is potential fuel for a fire.

And if a blaze breaks out, the volume of material makes it difficult for firefighters to access a building.

Some cases of hoarding occur in rental properties and often under pressure from neighbours to act, landlords will evict the tenant. That often can lead to homelessness which only heightens a sense of isolation.

Recognizing the broad hazards involved with hoarding, a new action response team has been created in Vernon.

It consists of Partners in Planning, the bylaw compliance department, the fire department, emergency social services, the Interior Health Authority, the Canadian Mental Health Association, the John Howard Society and the Ministry of Social Development.

“We’re still looking at what the model will look like but we’re looking at how the agencies can work more closely together,” said Sharkey.

“We want to connect an individual who is hoarding with assistance such as counselling.”

Kanester believes the action team is the first step towards improved communications.

“It will provide us with an opportunity to be aware of a situation another agency is involved in,” he said.

At a recent Union of B.C. Municipalities convention, delegates considered a resolution from Lower Mainland jurisdictions. It called on health authorities to work with local government to address the increasing prevalence of hoarding by allocating appropriate resources and staff and by providing care and support to hoarders to enable them to manage and reduce risks associated with their condition.

Sharkey admits that one of the goals of the action team is to change the perception of hoarders within agencies, as well as the public.

“There’s no easy fix. You can’t just go in, clean a place up and the person is cured,” she said, adding that there may be deep-rooted emotional issues that have led an individual to hoard.

“They need ongoing support and preventative measures, such as follow-ups to make sure they haven’t moved back into a dangerous place.”

Sharkey is hopeful the action response team will make positive strides towards providing the assistance some residents need in a dignified and compassionate manner.

“We really want to have a community approach to this,” she said.



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