Linda Harper is a woman on the brink of losing her home. But it's not a home in which anybody — including Harper — would choose to live. In fact, storage unit may be the more appropriate term for room 721 at the Columbia Hotel, which she has rented for the past four years.
The problem is that about two years ago, Harper filled up 721. Completely. She brought in furniture. Clothing. Papers. Antiques. Art. Books. Bags. Garbage. Food. She didn't bring in the rats or the spiders or the cockroaches. But when you fill a room with so much of everything else, critters tend to join the party.
It's the spiders she's most concerned about, as Harper guides her wheelchair into an old, rust-stained elevator and punches seven. "The penthouse," she jokes, then quickly adds, "Shithouse, actually."
Harper is a soulful, loquacious 58-year-old with a penchant for accumulating junk, and a past that makes it hard to blame her. Born in Dallas but raised all over America, she apparently had an old lady with a temper. "I grew up black and blue, in closets," she says. After receiving a beating, Harper remembers, she would get locked in the closet for hours. Eventually she started hiding snacks in there to make the next time a little more accommodating. Whenever Harper got a bad enough beating that somebody noticed, her mom would insist on moving away, she says. That meant Harper had to leave behind a whole lot of things she liked.
At 15, Harper ran away from home and took her boyfriend with her. They got married in Idaho, and before she hit 20, they had three children. Those children don't have anything to do with her now, she says.
At the seventh floor, Harper guides her wheelchair down the hall, studying the spotless white walls and the sea-foam-green trimming on the doors. She figures that's new, but the truth is she wouldn't know. She's been staying with a friend on the fourth floor for the past year and a half, and visits her own room only periodically, to deposit more items.
Harper parks at the end of the hall and fishes through two bulging bags slung around the back of the wheelchair. (They were mostly empty when she left the hotel this morning, but now visible at the top are several books, magazines, and free bread from St. Anthony Foundation.) She retrieves the key to 721, elevates herself out of the wheelchair, and slowly walks to the door.
"This is the war zone," she says, then laughs loudly. (When Harper faces a hard truth, she always laughs loudly.) With a twist of the key and a nudge, the door begins to open. Then it stops, blocked by an immense pile of crap that stretches wall to wall.
PG&E shut off the power long ago, rendering it difficult to tell what's going on inside 721. But the musty, hovering stink gives a few hints, and the crack in the door bathes a coffee table in outside light. Its surface is covered with unidentifiable, rotting food and Dr. Pepper bottles of various sizes. Some bottles, Harper admits, are filled with urine.
The Department of Public Health first inspected this room last June, and this is pretty much what it looked like then. The inspector told Harper she would have to clean it up. A month later, he told her again. Then again. Then again. Harper — who says she's been on disability since 1983 for health problems including a herniated disk and epilepsy — clearly needed some help with the cleaning, among other things. But instead of getting the help she needed, she bounced from one social service abbreviation to the next, never receiving the attention her affliction — compulsive hoarding and cluttering — requires.
She isn't the only one in San Francisco. Not even close.
The acquiring of and failure to discard seemingly useless possessions, causing significant clutter, distress, and impairment to basic living activities. That's the definition mental health researchers have basically agreed on for compulsive hoarding and cluttering. They also agree that hoarding behaviors cut across ethnicity, gender, and socioeconomic status, and although the elderly tend to hoard more than the young, they certainly don't have a monopoly. Hoarders can often be identified in suburban areas by the possessions spilling out of their homes, while in cities like San Francisco, they are often concentrated in smaller, concealed dwellings. According to a just-released citywide task force report on hoarding, there are an estimated 12,000 to 25,000 hoarders living in San Francisco.
Unaware they have mental issues or too embarrassed to seek help, many accumulate superfluous possessions until something catastrophic happens and reveals the problem. Too much clutter is a safety and fire hazard. It also tends to get people evicted.
Edward Singer, a San Francisco attorney who represents landlords, has come face to face with the problem, and although he tries to help hoarders and landlords work things out without an eviction, sometimes there's no alternative.
Two years ago, in an upscale Nob Hill building that provides executive housing, an elderly woman named Audrey McCamant destroyed not one, but two apartments. Over the course of four years, according to a lawsuit, she filled the first one with garbage, eventually attracting a rat infestation and failing to report a leak, which flooded her apartment and damaged the unit below. When the building manager moved her to an apartment next door, she trashed that one, too, and refused to answer the door.
As Singer tells it, police broke in and found McCamant naked on the couch, surrounded by piles of garbage and insects. It smelled so bad, they believed she was dead, but as they approached, she sat up and screamed, "What are you doing in my apartment?" The cop got spooked and knocked over a pregnant building manager, Singer recounts — luckily, she wasn't injured. McCamant, who declined to comment for this story, was evicted. The ordeal cost the landlord more than $56,000, Singer says.