- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 11, 2005

The obsession to hoard such junk as old magazines, clothes — even ceramic Santas and grenade launchers — inside homes has become more than an unusual or minor nuisance in Fairfax County.

John Yetman, chairman of the county’s Hoarding Task Force, said officials respond to about five cases a month and reported 55 such cases last year and 42 in 2003.

“This is not sloppy housekeeping,” said Mr. Yetman, who explained hoarding can result in fire, disease, rodent infestation, structural damage to homes and occasionally death.

Some experts say hoarders are driven by such neurological illnesses as Parkinson’s disease or the mental health problems of depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Others, especially the elderly, are simply too weak to take care of themselves.

“When a house starts filling up, it also affects other things, such as making important repairs in your house,” Mr. Yetman said. “One gentleman seemed to have no electricity. We found out later all [we] had to do was find the circuit breaker box, which you couldn’t, anymore.”

Fairfax County began tracking hoarding incidents in 1999, though historical accounts go back 5,400 years to ancient Egypt, where members of the Memphite dynasties buried their dead rulers with everything from furniture to mummified ducks and geese, according to the New York Times.

Mr. Yetman said Fairfax officials started keeping numbers after officials removed 15 construction-size trash bins full of debris from a Burke, Va., home. He said the couple had been unable to reach the kitchen in 10 years. One home Mr. Yetman visited was stuffed with vintage land mines, bazookas and rocket-propelled grenades.

Authorities also started the task force soon after the 1998 incident to better coordinate efforts among fire, housing and health departments when dealing with such cases. Other agencies, including social services and adult protective services, came aboard to assist owners in cleaning up their homes, which can cost more than $10,000.

But in some cases, officials are forced to obtain a warrant from a judge to clean up the homes of unwilling residents.

“The whole issue is: Do the people want help or not…,” said Robin Sparer with the Rockville Department of Community Services, which co-sponsored a workshop June 1 on hoarding.

Mr. Yetmen said hoarders in Fairfax County can face numerous misdemeanor charges such as violating building, fire and health codes.

“We only go this route if it is a life-safety issue and they’re refusing all help,” he said. “It’s our last choice.”

Task forces similar to Fairfax County’s exist in New York City and Seattle, and Mr. Yetman said Arlington County and Alexandria coordinate between officials when dealing with hoarding incidents. Miss Sparer said officials in Montgomery County have also begun trying to address the problem.

The June 1 workshop, in Gaithersburg, brought together more than 100 workers from area agencies, including housing and school officials, code enforcement officers and fire marshals.

“It’s not a case we see every day, but when we see them, they’re so complicated and time-consuming,” said Maureen Herndon with the Gaithersburg Department of Human Services, which also sponsored the workshop.

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