Clearout the clutter
A new year is the perfect time to declutter your life and home, recycle, upcycle and donate unwanted items to charity.
As well as getting the “feel good factor” from having helped someone less fortunate and from tidying the house and garage, the process is often cathartic.
Serious clutter, or hoarding, and the complex personal, health and social issues that lie beneath its many layers is a challenge faced by us and all other social housing providers.
The problem can have a significant impact both on the tenant and their family - who may be at risk of losing their tenancy – and also on the welfare of neighbours and the local community.
There is a financial impact too as housing providers need to maintain their stock in good condition as well as comply with health and safety standards.
The NHS describes a hoarding disorder as where someone “acquires an excessive number of items and stores them in a chaotic manner, usually resulting in unmanageable amounts of clutter.” This becomes “a significant problem” when it interferes with everyday living such as being able to use the kitchen and bathroom or access rooms, or when it adversely affects quality of life.
Such disorders are difficult to treat, however, because hoarders often do not accept they have a problem, or have little awareness of how others’ are affected. Those that do may be reluctant to seek help due to shame or guilt.
Our company values include being “people focused, inclusive and professional.” We believe in engaging with, and working in partnership with, our customers and supporting them where appropriate to sustain their tenancies through better financial management or acceptable behaviour.
This is increasingly important in today’s climate as with social care, council, NHS and police services under growing pressure, other agencies such as housing associations are having to be more resourceful in finding ways to support customers through difficulties that are frequently non-housing related.
Hoarding is one of the myriad of challenges our housing officers deal with and like many challenges it demands resourcefulness and resilience and can be time consuming, frustrating and rewarding.
Not all cases have a positive outcome. In 2018 we repossessed two properties due to their insanitary condition, health and safety risks and the resulting impact on neighbours and local community. In spite of our intensive input over two years there was little engagement or improvement and legal action was the only option.
But there are successes and a brilliant example of the effort, skills and numerous agencies required in supporting a single committed hoarder involves people case officer Trlok Janagal who spent over a year working with a vulnerable ex-serviceman.
Trlok describes the 68-year-old’s flat as “one of the worst properties I have seen in my 19-year career. It was strewn with dog faeces and he slept on the sofa because there was so much rubbish, he couldn’t access his bedroom. He was struggling to look after himself, was not cooking or washing properly and his flat was a fire risk to himself and his neighbours.”
Our contractor Fortem had alerted us to these appalling living conditions after attending to repair a door. Indeed, our surveyor advised contractors could not be expected to work in such conditions to replace the kitchen, due for renewal as part of our planned asset improvement programme.
From the get-go, Trlok’s mission was to avoid eviction and initially he visited monthly to encourage the customer to clean up his flat. But after no real progress he had an “honest discussion,” emphasising the risk to his tenancy.
The customer accepted he needed help, enabling Trlok to liaise with his GP practice, social services, our repairs and assets and floating support teams, a charity and his sister, who lived three hours drive away. His family, shocked to discover how he was living, helped him clear 20 sacks of rubbish from the flat, as well as find a new home for his pet dog.
Trlok then referred him to the ex-service personnel charity SSAFA who helped him decorate and provided a new carpet, whilst as gestures of goodwill our contractor replaced two doors badly gnawed by the dog and we replaced another two, all free of charge.
But Trlok didn’t just say “job done.” At the customer’s request he made a follow-up visit and six months on was delighted to find that not only was he coping with everyday life, he was attending a drop-in at his local church.
This illustrates how housing officers are so much more than their job description and that they have to work outside the box to support customers who have complex underlying issues including mental ill health, physical ill health or frailty, financial difficulties, relationship problems and substance misuse that contribute to their behaviour or lifestyle.