Excessive collection of stuff is a mental disability, but legal protections for these renters are often ignored
On March 10, MHA hosted its 13th Conference on Hoarding and Cluttering. Keynote speaker Christiana Bratiotis, who has her doctorate in social work and is director of the Hoarding Research Project, defined compulsive hoarding as the "acquisition of, and failure to discard, a large number of possessions that appear to be useless or of limited value."
Michael Badolato, administrative assistant of Broderick Street Adult Residential Facility, attended to find a reasonable approach to deal with a hoarding resident living in his facility. "The challenge of hoarding is the mental health issue involved," he said. Other attendees included educators, landlords, healthcare workers, attorneys, and hoarders themselves.
One panel discussion topic was how hoarding and cluttering are portrayed in the media. The panel included Michael Gause, associate director of MHA; Robin Zasio, a physician on A&E's Hoarders; and Kari Peterson, an organizer from Hoarding: Buried Alive. Hoarders was created to show people in crisis and prevent the behaviors through the show.
The panelists claim that in order to show what the crisis is, a sensational aspect is involved. Ceci Garnett, whose mother was featured in an episode of Hoarders, says knowing that others are out there is "worth it to let people know they are not alone.
"And at least now there is treatment," she continued. "We have to risk sensationalism to start a conversation."
Ray Cleary, who was on season one of TLC's Buried Alive, also appeared on the panel. Featured before and after treatment, he is still in the process of recovering. "I didn't have to throw everything away," he says. "I still have boxes and don't know what to do with them."
Another hoarder, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid eviction, was critical of the media attention on hoarding. "It's a cult. People are going to make a career off my circumstance — making it a disease."
These people have "already decided it's a pre-mental disease," she continued.
Inside her home near Van Ness Avenue, a small path led from the door to her living room. By the door hung green bead necklaces from years of parades; yellowing stacks of paper filled every space in the rooms. An information junkie, she collects newspapers and books. A San Francisco resident for 45 years, she used to be homeless and has suffered from a head injury. "Throwing something away is like throwing away memory — and that means it's gone forever," she says.
When she was homeless, her belongings went to storage. But when she got housing, she couldn't throw anything away. Everyone she knows who has suffered from a head injury has this problem as well, she says, claiming it comes from gradually mixed emotional issues from losses and her health.
For years she tried to find someone to help her recycle or donate items, but she couldn't find the help she needed, even from her case manager. Other hoarders claim that most caseworkers aren't aware of their condition and assume they just need to throw everything out at once — something hoarders don't feel they can easily do.
Her landlord isn't involved with the property and doesn't know of the situation. She would like someone to sit and accompany her as she cleans, but she doesn't know of any service that provides this. During the interview, she picked up a phone call from someone who was going to stop by later to help. "But they usually flake on me," she acknowledged. Her hoarding, she says, is part of a physical health issue, not a mental health problem.