As the head of an Illawarra Hoarding and Squalor Unit Debra Pasfield has seen – and smelt – some pretty offensive things.
There was the man so obsessed with pamphlets that he would raid the letterboxes around his neighbourhood for his collection, which was stacked waist-high and starting to rot in his living room.
There’s cases of Vietnam veterans suffering PTSD, or refugees who’d fled war-torn countries, so scarred by prior food deprivation they’d hoarded mountains of produce – way past its use-by date.
Then there was the female academic, behind whose smart appearance lay a home piled high with bottles and bags of garbage being feasted on by cockroaches.
Recently Ms Pasfield, from Catholic Community Services, was forced to alert the fire brigade after being called to the home of an elderly woman by the department of housing.
‘’From the outside you would never have guessed – the lawns were mown and the house presented well,’’ she said.
‘’However the door wouldn’t open past 30 centimetres so I had to squeeze in, and then walk sideways through the house as the walkways between the mess were so narrow.
‘’From floor to ceiling there were books, paper and craft – magazines going back to the 1920s which were probably worth a fortune literally rotting away.
‘’The air was thick with humidity, you could hardly breathe, yet this woman was living there. It was a major fire – and health – hazard.’’
Ms Pasfield’s team gets called out to cases like this several times a week, often dealing with serial offenders. She said more funds were needed to combat the problem, with numbers rising.
‘’It’s not an easy fix – you can’t just walk in and chuck everything in a skip,’’ she said. ‘’Hoarding is a mental health condition so you need to work with the individual to find out why they’re doing it, and then work with them to better their lives.’’
Ms Pasfield said Catholic Community Services (CCS) worked with a range of other human services and authorities to help people clear the clutter and change their behaviour over weeks, months – even years.
‘’In the Illawarra this way of living is often generational – it’s learned behaviour that’s passed down through families and it can be tough to change.’’
Hoarding and squalor not only affected the individuals, with neighbours as well as family and friends adversely impacted.
‘’Neighbours have to deal with the smell and look of the places, as well as the cockroaches and rats that are often attacted to them,’’ she said.
‘’It also puts a lot of stress and strain on family and friends who want to help, but don’t know how to.’’
Meantime councils have limited powers to intervene, and then only when the rubbish is external. Ms Pasfield said councils could issues warnings – and fines of up to $12,000 – but again this did not break the cycle.
However if services like CCS intervened, she said the success rate could be up to 90 per cent.
FORUM TO FOCUS ON PROBLEM
Catholic Community Services NSW/ACT will host a two-day National Hoarding and Squalor Conference in Sydney from June 29-30.
The conference, at Rydges World Square, aims to raise awareness about the impacts for individuals; community organisations; local, state and federal governments; and the broader community.
Despite hoarding being recognised as a distinct psychiatric condition, CCS claims Australia still lacks fundamental knowledge of, and a national strategy for, addressing the problem.
More than 95 per cent of homes with hoarding and squalor conditions present a safety risk, not only to the inhabitants, but also to human services agency staff.
Topics to be discussed at the event include animal hoarding, health and safety issues, environmental impacts, homelessness, effects on family and treatment and management strategies.