WAAY 31’s I-Team investigated the problem of hoarding in the Tennessee Valley. Besides the hoarders themselves, the disorder often hurts families. Hoarding can damage relationships. And WAAY 31 learned it even affects local first responders and can put their lives at risk. More and more, hoarding has serious – sometimes deadly – consequences piling up around us.
From floor to ceiling, there was barely any room to move. "Something I didn't grow up with,” Allen told WAAY 31. “I didn't understand until I saw it firsthand." Decades ago, one man came face-to-face with hoarding. "My wife tried to warn me,” he said. “She told me that they were hoarders. And I really didn't understand what that meant."
Allen wants us to hide his identity because hoarding has hurt his family. It all started when his wife's parents offered to let the couple move into their second home. It was already occupied – packed with everything imaginable. "Everything was little goat paths between all the boxes and the furniture,” Allen explained. “Everything was stacked up. And it was really hard to move around."
The couple had to contend with bag after bag of clothes, boxes of expired food, rats, rat droppings and dirty air. "No matter how much we pleaded to clean the house out, she refused. That was her stuff. And you weren't going to mess with her stuff," he told us.
Allen says his wife started suffering severe allergic reactions. Still, her parents did nothing about their hoarding. Moving out was the only way the couple could live in a clean home. "It's mind-boggling really. I don't understand how somebody could care more about like a thing than like a family member or person."
WAAY 31 reached out to a licensed professional counselor to learn more about the underlying problems associated with hoarding.
Hoarding can cause "an enormous amount of stress and tension and conflict,” Christy Jacob told us. "Family members become very frustrated. And I think the person with the hoarding issue becomes more and more isolated. And even though it's their behaviors, they don't see that."
The therapist says families often make the mistake of trying to understand why a hoarder just won't clear it all out. "Because they try to approach an illogical or irrational problem with ration and logic and it doesn't always work in bringing awareness to that person."
Jacob says most hoarders are 55 and older. They often become isolated, withdrawn and increasingly depressed. "It can even get to the point of them not allowing other people to enter the home."
Experts emphasize: hoarding is a mental disorder, not a choice. And hoarding is often linked with other mental conditions. "Most often in about 75 percent of the cases of hoarding, you'll see actually a co-morbidity or presence of depression or mood disorder and an anxiety disorder," Jacob explained.
Hoarding can be deadly. The National Fire Protection Association says many fire departments are seeing more fires, related injuries and deaths because of hoarding.
Huntsville Fire and Rescue told WAAY 31 hoarding also puts loved ones and firefighters at risk.
Like firefighters, EMTs face dangerous hurdles at hoarders’ homes. HEMSI tells us when one of their ambulances pulls up, their people can have a tough time just getting to the patient. Boxes, trash and piles of clothes make it nearly impossible to get a stretcher and medical equipment inside.
When the hoarding is bad enough, emergency workers contact their local Department of Human Resources. Morgan County’s DHR says inadequate shelter is enough for them to take action, especially when children or disabled adults are involved.
"It just starts building up and it gets away from you," Don Myre told us. Myre has seen it all. "I think it's a lot bigger than people – the general public – know."
Myre showed us before-and-after photos from hoarding clean-up jobs carried out by his company, Bio-One.
Family members or hoarders able to admit their problem reach out for help. "Oh, it's huge,” Myre said. “It's huge for them to let me in because they know that once I'm in, it's not a secret anymore."
Myre's crews wear protective masks, gloves and boots. Meanwhile, hoarders have lived in those same homes for years without any protection. It's dangerous. He says hoarders face serious health risks "especially if there are feces or there's rodent feces or there are other things in there that cause – you know, you inhale those things and it's bad for you."
Some people never escape the hell-on-earth caused by hoarding. Allen’s family is still suffering the effects. "Her possession was more important to her than my well-being or my wife's well-being. And that's just not really something that I could ever comprehend."
His family cut off ties to his in-laws. Hoarding has practically ended that relationship.
"Not much of one," Allen said. "We don't really speak. It's done a lot of lasting damage."
Counselor Christy Jacob advises family members to educate themselves and learn about their loved one's hoarding disorder. She says it's important to continue reaching out to the hoarder and to seek help – either for the hoarder or themselves. That might lead to the hoarder agreeing to seek treatment.