Hoarding, and its unseen complexities (Part 1)
Updated: Sep 15, 2021
On Monday a big fire broke out in a Telok Blangah flat which saw 8 injured and over 100 residents evacuated. What fueled it? Hoarding. Piles of cardboard boxes, potted plants, furniture, and clutter stored at the lift landing by one of the homeowners for years.
Not as simple as just decluttering
Habitat for Humanity Singapore had previously tried to work with the homeowner in Telok Blangah earlier in April this year but was unable to adequately convince the homeowner to kickstart the home rehabilitation process.
Thankfully, we have confirmed that the homeowner at the Telok Blangah estate is safe and we are heartened to read that she has shared with The Straits Times that she is “not going to put things outside of [her] flat anymore – it’s a hazard and [she] doesn’t like it”. We have reached out to the homeowner again and hope this close encounter has caused her to have a change of heart.
While unfortunate, such resistance to change can also be completely understandable as hoarding behaviour can be nuanced and very personal.
Most people think hoarding is just about having a messy house or having too many things. When people find out that we work with hoarding cases, some would be quick to ask if we could help people that they know too with ‘hoarding issues’. The truth is real hoarding issues aren’t the simplest to deal with.
In genuine hoarding cases that we have come across, not only is the number of accumulated items incredibly excessive, (think: items piled up high almost to the ceiling with no floor space that some homeowners opt to sleep on the items instead), most homeowners also have persistent difficulty parting with them.
According to a research paper in the Singapore Medical Journal, hoarding refers to “an excessive acquisition of objects and inability to part with apparently valueless possessions” and it “can manifest within several other psychiatric conditions, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, major depressive disorder, acquisition-related impulse control disorders, making it challenging to treat”.
Hoarding behaviour is incredibly complex, and in the many years we are only starting to scratch the surface of it.
The emotional ties that bind
The reasons why homeowners hoard vary from case to case. For some, the accumulation of items is triggered by emotional or psychological episodes of a person’s life and as such have emotional attachments. What may seem like trash to a layperson may mean the world to the homeowner.
For example, some hoarding cases may begin when a loved one has passed on. When we met Mdm Lai, she shared with us that she started accumulating items when her husband passed away 30 years ago. Shopping became an outlet for her grief.
A study on the lived experience of hoarding in Singapore in the Wiley Online Library highlighted a similar trend, where homeowners encountered by researchers had feelings of ‘sentimental attachment’ which made it difficult for them to part with their possessions. A commentary piece by an Institute of Mental Health representative in Channel NewsAsia even described the experience to be ‘akin to tearing a hole in their heart’ as it ‘involves opening up long buried, forgotten but unresolved issues’. In extreme cases, homeowners can become paralysed by fear and doubt, which may translate into physical symptoms of discomfort.
Saving items for an elusive rainy day
Yet, in other cases, we’ve met homeowners who hoard items because they feel that they can still use them in future. The commentary by the Institute of Mental Health highlights how many homeowners feel that it is ‘wasteful to throw such a good item away, even though it may be damaged beyond repair’. We’ve recently met a homeowner who stored an old, expired gas canister in her home and was reluctant to part with it even though it was obviously unusable and potentially dangerous.
Previously, we also worked with Mdm Foo, who hoarded an excessive amount of kitchen towels and toilet paper, as they provided her with a sense of security for her incontinence problem
Health issues, home issues
Some homeowners also face health or medical issues which simply left them unable to upkeep the hygiene of their home. An example is Mr Saini, whom we worked with during the pandemic – depression-fueled health issues left him immobile and unable to clear the growing mountain of food packets in his home.
Sometimes, a hoarding case is not an isolated event entirely caused by just the homeowner, but could also be exacerbated by the community around. We’ve seen cases where neighbours will pass to these homeowners items which are perceived to be “salvageable”, or things thought to be wasteful if thrown away. In doing so, they contribute to the pile of clutter which the homeowner is unable to clear by themselves.
A learning journey
After working with so many hoarding cases, one may ask – have we found the solution to hoarding? The honest truth is that we haven't. The reasons behind hoarding behaviour can be so complex and differ drastically for each individual that we’ve realised that there is no one foolproof method. However, we have learnt some lessons on how to more effectively work with homeowners who hoard. Stay tuned for part 2 of this feature on hoarding to find out what we’ve learnt over the years.