When I attended my first estate sale two months ago, and the living room looked like this (see pic to the left), it confused me. Was it customary for the people holding estate sales to throw everything out in the open so buyers could see it all?
The answer was no. If anything, those running the estate sale had tried to clean things up a bit. And it had taken them six days to whip the living room into this not-quite presentable condition. The problem, I soon found out, was that the woman who had lived in this Glen Park home had been a compulsive hoarder and clutterer. Essentially, that's the fancy (and less offensive) name for pack-rat.
Compulsive hoarding and cluttering, according to the experts, is the acquiring of and failure to discard seemingly useless possessions, causing significant clutter, distress, and impairment to basic living activities.
Because hoarders see objects as unique and see potential in them for later use, they have a really difficult time throwing anything away. Junk mail might be a nice color, for instance. The Mental Health Association (MHA) of San Francisco has long known that the city is home to many people who hoard, but today, for the first time ever, a task force has released a report that provides estimates on prevalence and cost, and proposes solutions.
The report, put together by the 28-member task force and co-chaired by the MHA and the Department of Aging and Adult Services, estimates that there are somewhere between 12,000 and 25,000 hoarders in SF, and they are costing the city more than $6 million a year. Those costs include fires, evictions, pest control, deep cleanings, foregone rent, and staff time in city agencies and local non-profits. Dealing with those costs and problems, as you can read in my cover story this week, is going to be difficult.
Hoarding is fairly intractible problem, as hoarders tend to isolate themselves and rarely seek help. They have strained relationships with family members and are oftentimes embarrassed about how they live. Although they've received quite a bit of media attention (particularly on Oprah), hoarders usually prefer to stay out of the public eye.
Oftentimes, the living situation of hoarder is only revealed at an estate sale, or in a lawsuit, when somebody's getting evicted. I spent the past couple weeks researching hoarding, looking through lawsuits, and interviewing lawyers, services providers, researchers and hoarders themselves. Some of the hoarders were well-to-do professionals. Others had been homeless, and now live in SRO hotels. The hoarders also varied in gender, ethnicity, age, and background, and although not all of them made it into my story, they all helped me to understand the nuances of the problem.
If you happen to know a compulsive hoarder and clutterer, and that person is interested in getting help and attending support groups in the Flood Building on Market Street, he or she can contact Belinda Lyons with the Mental Health Association, at 415-421-1882.