Vickroy: Happy endings are rare in hoarding cases
By Donna Vickroy firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @dvickroy August 2, 2013 9:34PM
Hazel Crest Police Chief Tom Folliard stands outside the home of an alleged hoarder. Folliard said the homeowner has until Aug. 22 to clean the place up. | Donna Vickroy~Sun-Times Media
WHERE TO GO FOR HELP
Becky Lerfelt, assistant director of PLOWS Council on Aging, recommends people with hoarder concerns start with your local aging agency if the hoarder is a senior citizen.
PLOWS Council on Aging, 7808 W College Drive, Palos Heights; (708) 361-0219; plows.org
Chicago Crime Scene Cleanup, 888-571-0750; csichc.com
Catholic Charities South Suburban Senior Case Management Center; (708) 596-2222; catholiccharities.net
Updated: September 5, 2013 6:34AM
Sometimes, there just can’t be a happy ending.
This is the story of an elderly woman, well known and well liked in Hazel Crest. She is a former nurse who owns a nonprofit group. She participates in community events and takes an interest in local issues, frequently attending village meetings. She appears to be the kind of citizen community officials want: active, engaged, productive.
Months ago, however, officials learned she appears to suffer from a confounding mental illness, an illness that seems to be on the rise. Authorities say she is a hoarder.
According to authorities, inside her grayish bungalow are pathways and tunnels through piles and piles of stuff. Animal feces and vomit are caked onto those piles. There is a makeshift chicken wire doorway between the bedroom and kitchen, authorities say.
Worse than the stacks of newspapers, garbage, clothing and tools is the smell, authorities say. The stench of rotting trash and dead rodents emanates from the home, reaching all the way to the front yard garden, replete with butterfly bushes and pots of coneflowers, further illustrating the contradiction that is this woman’s life.
Hazel Crest authorities first learned of the woman’s living conditions in February after neighbors called to complain that stray pit bulls were wandering the block. Investigators soon learned the homeowner was feeding them. She also was feeding stray cats and raccoons. A relative says there are raccoons as big as dogs living in her basement.
Police, village officials and social service workers made several attempts to talk with the woman and to inspect her home. Each time they were turned away.
Finally, police Chief Thomas Folliard contacted the village’s attorneys and the case went to court. After authorities exercised a search warrant and videoed the premises, a judge gave the woman 50 days to clean up.
The clock is ticking. Authorities were back at the property this week and there appeared to be no sign of compliance. Though some trees had been trimmed, the piles of stuff still were clearly visible through the windows. As they walked around the side of the house, two pit pulls emerged and took off down the street. A metal shelving unit, filled with dry pet food, stood in the driveway.
The woman, who hasn’t been named because she has not been charged, was not there, but had been notified of the inspection, authorities said.
Folliard said that come Aug. 22, the homeowner’s deadline, he plans to issue a citation for unsafe conditions, and begin the process for hiring a cleanup company and putting a lien against the woman’s home to pay for it. Folliard said he understands the range of emotions that hoarders must deal with, but he has an obligation to help her and protect her neighbors.
“The last thing I want to do is toss an elderly woman out of her home,” he said. “I could have been issuing tickets every day. But that’s not the solution. I want to help her.”
Unfortunately, these days, compassion can be expensive. So far, the village has been picking up the tab for inspection and court costs.
In the course of reporting this story, I have made many calls to local government agencies to find out what resources, if any, are available to hoarders and their families. The short answer: not many.
Representatives of both the Bremen and Rich township offices said that while their agencies can help seniors with light housekeeping duty, they do not have the resources to intervene in a hoarder case.
Commodore Edmond, a caseworker in Rich Township, said there are very few services these days for seniors and people with mental illness because of funding cuts.
“People don’t want to pay for public sector programs,” he said.
Becky Lerfelt, assistant director of PLOWS Council on Aging in Palos Heights, said hoarder cases are among the most difficult to resolve, because the hoarder is often resistant to change and because it can be expensive to fix the problem. Her staff is seeing so many hoarding cases that she is inclined to call it an epidemic.
She’s seen all degrees of hoarding, as well, from the person who is overwhelmed to the individual who is living without utilities or access to the stairs.
“We had a case in Oak Lawn in which the home had to be leveled, things had gotten so bad,” she said.
Oddly enough, she said, many seniors have the financial means to pay for a cleanup and, if they have Medicare, they have access to counseling.
“The biggest problem is that they don’t want help,” Lerfelt said. “We rely on the municipalities to force the issue.”
Hoarder cases typically don’t have successful endings. Most revert to their old ways once authorities are out of the way, Lerfelt said.
“This is going on everywhere, and we need to look at it,” she said.
Kristine Kappel, spokesperson for Catholic Charities, which has offices in Worth and South Holland, said the organization will look into concerns from neighbors or loved ones and connect the person with help such as temporary housing, mental health resources or cleaning services.
Dan Reynolds, owner of Chicago Crime Scene Cleanup in Minooka, makes his living on the dark side of the human condition. In addition to cleaning murder, tear gas and meth lab residue, Reynolds’ staff hauls away tons of debris from hoarder homes each year. He is backed up three to four weeks.
He’s worked in homes of 20-year-olds and 80-year-olds, paupers and millionaires. About the only common denominator, he said, is that most cases are triggered by depression or obsessive compulsive disorder. The victims seem to find comfort in hanging on to just about everything, he said.
Costs for cleaning out a hoarder home can range from $1,000 up to $25,000, depending on how bad the situation is. Costs can be reduced if family or friends are willing to pitch in on cleanup days, he said.
“Sometimes, families pay for the cleanup, sometimes people lose their homes and end up in a hospital. And sometimes, they just walk away from the property,” he said. In those cases, the municipality foots the bill and then puts a lien against the property. Often, he said, his crew needs police or family intervention to get the job done.
Hoarding can lead to health problems, particularly respiratory issues. Worst-case scenarios, he said, can involve a form of the hantavirus, which is spread through rodents and is almost always fatal in humans.
As he stood on the driveway of her home early last week, Folliard watched as another officer raced toward him across the street. She came bearing bad news: Two more cases of hoarding had been identified in the village, she said.
Folliard hung his head. “Here we go again.”