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Hoarding and Squalor website a practical resource for community and service providers

Published on 10 May 2018
  • Community
  • Health and wellbeing
Example of hoarding Image courtesy of Metropolitan Fire and Emergency Services Board, 2017

Hoarding is a complex mental health issue and it can often be hard for individuals affected or their families to find the help they need. Fortunately, Council has joined forces with local health experts, social services agencies and MFB Victoria to launch a website dedicated to supporting members of the community affected by domestic hoarding and/or squalor. 

The Maroondah Hoarding and Squalor Network (MHSN) website has been developed as a practical resource to assist and guide service providers to respond and support clients with  hoarding behaviour or for people living in squalid conditions.

Maroondah Mayor Councillor Nora Lamont said it is estimated that one in 20 Australians are afflicted by hoarding behaviour.

“The problem can be socially isolating, damaging to property and relationships, and a potential fire and safety risk,” Cr Lamont said.

“We know that there is no easy answer to address hoarding and squalor in the community but it is widely acknowledged that bringing agencies together to support the client is the most effective approach.”

At Council, our Environmental Health Officers investigate complaints of hoarding under the Public Health and Wellbeing Act; our Local Laws Officers investigate the condition of the property under our Local Laws; and our Aged and Disability team provide services to clients with hoarding behaviours on an almost fortnightly basis.

The MHSN provides a forum for local agencies and community groups to share skills, knowledge and experience when dealing with the often complex and sensitive issues surrounding hoarding and/or squalor.  

What is hoarding? 

Hoarding disorder is characterised by a persistent difficulty with letting go of possessions, even those which may not seem to have value to an outside observer. This behaviour causes clutter to accumulate to the point where it poses a safety risk and/or interferes with daily activities, such as socialising or using rooms for their intended purpose. Hoarding is a progressive and chronic condition.  

According to the Victorian Government’s Department of Health, hoarding behaviour is a recognised mental health condition that can affect all types of people of any age. Prolonged or extreme hoarding may lead to squalor. 

Without proper treatment and intervention, both the behaviour and living conditions will deteriorate. 

What is squalor? 

Squalor is an unsanitary living environment that has arisen from extreme and/or prolonged neglect. Living in squalid conditions can cause public health issues for both the occupant as well as neighbours.  

Hoarding behaviour and squalid living conditions can affect many aspects of a person’s life, including personal safety, child protection and animal welfare.  

Hoarding behaviour and squalid living environments can impact people from all walks of life and are not linked to location, culture, income or social standing.

The fire risks of hoarding 

The Metropolitan Fire Brigade is engaged with government and a range of community services to address the range of needs of hoarders, including their high fire risk. 

MFB Assistant Chief Fire Officer Martin Braid said hoarding behaviour posed an increased fire risk not only to the occupant and neighbouring properties but also to firefighters. 

Often being the first responders to an emergency call-out, Mr Braid said firefighting crews faced significant danger where high fuel loads (i.e. stacked newspapers) were present and where access is restricted due to extreme clutter. 

“We understand that people living in these conditions are quite challenged and we’re very supportive of this. It’s about supporting the individual to make sure their living environment is safe and working to reduce the risk for emergency responders,” he said. 

A Hoarding Notification System was established by the MFB in 2013 following a spate of fire-related deaths resulting from hoarding behaviour.  

Mr Braid said that in the event of a fire or other emergency, the alert activates to advise responding fire crew that hoarding or a high fuel load has been identified at the property and acts to increase firefighter preparedness and safety. 

According to MFB figures, fires in properties with high levels of hoarding account for 24 per cent of fire fatalities since 2000.

Mr Braid said rather than taking a purely punitive approach with clean-up notices, agencies in the Maroondah Hoarding and Squalor Network instead firstly work the individuals to receive welfare, mental health and other appropriate services in the hope of providing a more sustainable outcome.

“Hoarding is a complex issue which requires intervention and long-term support from appropriate agencies,” he said. 

Responding to hoarding and squalor 

Mr Braid said ‘one-off’ clean-ups were often not effective and caused great distress to the person concerned.  

Understanding and addressing the underlying reasons which drive hoarding behaviour is vital, otherwise the accumulation of materials is likely to begin again, he said. 

“We always follow up a hoarding complaint and many of these cases are complex and sensitive. The follow-up includes a welfare check by council officers,” Mr Braid said. 

“The purpose of MFB inspections is to support affected people and the agencies working with them to identify risks and provide prioritised risk-reduction advice.” 

How can fire risks be reduced?

The MFB has undertaken a number of research studies into incidents involving hoarding and squalor and have identified the most significant fire risks within hoarding environments and how to reduce them. 

The MFB recommends the following actions be prioritised for people affected by hoarding: 

  • Installation of smoke alarms to provide vital time to escape
  • Unblocking exits
  • Widening internal pathways in the home
  • Checking utilities are connected
  • Removing clutter from stove tops and cooking areas
  • Removing clutter around heaters and electrical items
  • Discouraging the use of open flame

Where to get help 

For information or assistance on hoarding and squalor, see more on the Maroondah Hoarding and Squalor Network (MHSN) website or phone Council on 1300 882 233.

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