Spotting the home of a hoarder often doesn't require stepping inside, and reporting it could save a life.
"Generally, for people who've been hoarding awhile, even before you walk in there are things outside the house piled up -- things spill out," said Bonnie Klem, head of investigations for Montgomery County's Adult Protective Services.
"Inside, you may be climbing over piles or through very narrow pathways," she said. "Very often you're stepping over bags, boxes -- or you don't know what you're stepping over."
|Too many people with too much stuff|
|Psychologists estimate that hoarding tendencies affect up to 3 percent of the population, or as many as 170,000 people in the Washington area alone. The number of recorded cases is far fewer, however. Many jurisdictions don't keep a tally of them, leaving it to fire departments or mental health agencies to keep track of the problem.|
|Estimated hoarding cases in the Washington area:|
|Sources: "Hoarding: A Dangerous Secret," by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (November 2006); various municipal agencies|
Throughout the Washington region, code enforcement officials often don't have the resources or legal authority to seek out hoarders. From Fairfax to Prince George's, however, inspectors concede that thousands of cases likely go unnoticed each year.
Jurisdictions rely on neighbors, family members and people with access to homes -- such as cable installers or utility inspectors -- to alert them to dangerous conditions.
"Hoarders are usually reclusive -- they keep their blinds closed and keep to themselves," said police Sgt. Lynn Reid, an animal control officer in Fairfax County. "They come to our attention when they have a utility that fails, for example, and someone sees what's going on in the house."
Once a hoarder is brought to the attention of authorities, code inspectors can make sure the home is not a fire hazard, and social workers can step in to offer appropriate services.
Anyone with information about a suspected hoarder should contact these departments:
» D.C. General City Services: 311
» Arlington County Human Services: 703-228-1700
» City of Alexandria Code Compliance: 703-746-4200
» Fairfax County Code Compliance: 703-324-1300 or fairfaxcounty.gov/code/hoarding
» Montgomery County Aging and Disability Resources: 240-777-3000
» Prince George's County Code Compliance: 301-883-6100