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Clearing the clutter: Group offers help for hoarders

For a while, the show Hoarders was popular on cable.

A show about people who just can’t stop hoarding things in their homes. Bathrooms, kitchens, living rooms are piled high with paper, dishes, clothes, food. Doors can’t open. Sometimes there are too many animals in the house. People with hoarding disorder put themselves – and sometimes others – in danger.

The TV show resolves the issue with a lot of drama and tears, and the problem, at least what the viewer sees, is all taken care of in one or two episodes.

But life doesn’t work that way, and for a long time, there just wasn’t a lot of help available for people with hoarding disorder.

The Hoarding Task Force of Washtenaw Countywas one of the first in the country to help these folks.

Having someone on your side

Dave French is built like a football player, and he’s quick with a laugh.

He’s just spent about 45 minutes helping a woman sort through papers, magazines and clothes. She struggles with depression. And her landlord has been on her to clear the clutter.

French says when he first met her, things were a lot worse.

“The door couldn’t open. We couldn’t walk at all through here. We couldn’t go this way,” he says.

French works with the Hoarding Task Force. As he leaves the woman’s apartment, he calls out a few reminders to her.

“Just clear out the papers, throw them in a box and you’ve got your doors,” French says.

French helps all kinds of people. Some are down on their luck. Some are quite wealthy. He’s helped people find expensive jewelry they’ve misplaced. He even helped one woman discover an account full of cash she didn’t know about.

“Pat, did you realize you have half a million dollars? ‘Oh, great! Now about that old coffee maker, we’ve got to make sure…” says French, recalling a conversation he had with the woman, who has since passed away.

French says he feels like he can give people a little bit of reassurance. That someone is on their side when it feels like no one is on their side.

Helping people feel more comfortable in their own homes

Laurie Lutomski is a social worker who helped start the task force more than a decade ago. I joined her on a visit to a new client at her apartment.

The client wants to go by her initials, so we’ll call her R.S. She’s worried revealing her hoarding issues could affect her job.

When we walk in, there are boxes and stacks of things everywhere.

“I’m a rubber stamper, so a lot of this is rubber stamp stuff, making cards and stuff like that,” says R.S.

R.S. says she’s been getting letters from her landlord. Letters saying she needs to clean up the piles of stuff in her kitchen. There are piles of paper covering the kitchen counters and the stove.

A friend insisted she call the task force.

“So, basically you want help with the kitchen or do you want somebody who can then help you with other areas as well?” asks Lutomski.

“That’d be helpful to have some organization with my stamp stuff,” R.S. says.

Lutomski says she’ll have a volunteer come in to help, and then R.S. will make piles of things to keep, recycle or throw away.

“The volunteer then would take everything that would go to donation,” Lutomski says. “Or to trash with them when they left. So you’d only have the ‘keep’ stuff left."

A look of relief washes over R.S.’s face.

“That’s just amazing,” she says.

“Well, they do that so you don’t have those second thoughts and kind of worry about it and think about it,” says Lutomski.

R.S. says her sister has been helping her cut down on clutter.

“Well, and you guys should get to be sisters. Not just do this kind of stuff. When you have time, you should be able to do sister stuff,” Lutomski says kindly.

“Right,” says R.S.

Lutomski writes down some information, and tells R.S. she’ll call her to set up an appointment.

R.S. says she didn’t think she’d be able to find help like this.

“I was so surprised. Just like, wow, the help I need,” she says.

We say goodbye, get in the car, and head out.

People hoard for a lot of reasons

Lutomski says R.S.’s situation is pretty typical. No major safety issues. No mold or mildew. She has pathways to all her doors and windows. She just has a lot of stuff.

“People with hoarding disorder aren’t disabled and they’re not stupid. Right? They read magazines, they watch TV, they know this is not the standard. But for some reason they’re comfortable there, for whatever reason that is,” says Lutomski. “I mean, they frankly don’t know that I don’t go home and crawl in my window.”

She says people have many different reasons that drive them to hoard. It can be mental illness, or trauma, or an emotional connection to stuff they inherited from a family member.

Lutomski says so far, they’ve helped 237 people with hoarding disorder.

The Washtenaw County task force has inspired other cities and counties in Michigan. Grand Rapids has a hoarding task force up and running now. Lutomski says they’ve mentored people from the Traverse City area, Saginaw, Livingston, Wayne and Genesee counties, and Dearborn and Canton Township on how to start their own task forces.

Lumtomski says it’s not always smooth. Progress can be slow and frustrating. Sometimes they discover disturbing things, like dead animals.

Sometimes, people lose their motivation to change. But Lutomski says she gets so much more back than she gives.

“And a lot of these folks don’t have family and other people, and they don’t fit the mental health system or they don’t fit the senior population. But they now know they have somebody they can touch base with, and that makes a huge difference in their world. And frankly, ours too,” says Lutomski.

She says the task force can make people safer in their own homes, and give them some of their power back.

Minding Michigan is Stateside’s ongoing series that examines mental health issues in our state.

Mark Brush was Michigan Radio’s Digital Media Director. He succumbed to a year-long battle with glioblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer, in March 2018. He was 49 years old.
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