14 August 2019

Proposed hoarding laws not addressing psychological concerns, health advocates say

| Lachlan Roberts
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The Canberra Liberals’ proposed laws do not factor in mental health issues, advocates say.

Health advocates are concerned that the Liberals’ proposed crackdown on hoarders and property owners who fail to keep their properties clean, won’t address the psychological factors behind the phenomenon. They are asking the ACT Government to invest in mental health programs to help hoarders overcome their compulsion.

Opposition Leader Alistair Coe proposed new laws into the ACT Legislative Assembly on Wednesday morning (14 August) to force sordid properties to be cleaned up and penalties imposed.

Mr Coe said the Liberals have received numerous complaints about the Government’s failure to address residential hoarding issues, despite the health and safety risks hoarding can present.

Kaleen resident Kimuel Jetter said his neighbour’s front and back yards have been the site of mass hoarding over the past six years. The hoarding initially focused on animals but now the yard is filled with whitegoods like refrigerators and washing machines.

Mr Jetter said he has addressed the issue with his neighbour but with no success.

“My concern is for the health and safety. I don’t like going out in my backyard and having the smell be an issue,” Mr Jetter said.

“I want to use my property comfortably without issue, without smell, without mosquitos, and having to worry about rodents. I purchased my property so I can enjoy it and at the moment that’s not happening.”

The Canberra Liberals say the build-up of whitegoods is clearly encroaching on public land. Photo of an example of whitegoods hoarding: Supplied.

However, Mental Health Community Coalition ACT executive officer Simon Viereck has warned the Liberals against their approach to dealing with hoarders, saying that it doesn’t solve the problem.

“Hoarding is a mental health issue,” Mr Viereck told Region Media. “It is compulsive behaviour. It is not just because the person wants to have lots of stuff. They just can’t help themselves.

“What we know from members of ours who work with people who have hoarding behaviours, just cleaning the place up and taking them away does not solve the problem and it doesn’t solve the reason why the person is hoarding.

“While a clean up can be an important thing to do and I don’t discount that there could be safety issues, if you simply go in and clean away all the stuff, they are likely to start accumulating again the very next day.

“What we need is someone to support that person through working out why they are collecting all this stuff and working out a way to let go of it.”

Under the Liberals’ proposed laws, a government inspector must attend the premises at least once every 20 working days once an order to clean up the property has been issued.

If an ongoing order is issued, clearing the property must be completed within five working days, while the owner or tenant will have to pay twice the expected value of clean up costs.

Mr Viereck said along with these proposed laws, the Government needs to invest in research into the mental health factors that underline the issue.

An image of the hoarding taken from public land. Photo: Supplied.

“This is an area that is still relatively new in terms of research,” Mr Viereck said. “So we don’t necessarily know all about it yet. There is also no funding in this area at the moment.

“I would certainly like to see more powers matched by more support for people to actually address their hoarding behaviour. If you don’t address the behaviour, the problem will just come back.”

Senior manager of mental health and wellbeing at Woden Community Service, Pam Boyer, said she is very concerned about the Canberra Liberals’ proposed legislative changes.

“We need to make sure these people are assisted and not punished,” Ms Boyer said. “At the basis of hoarding behaviour, there is grief, loss and trauma and other underlying mental illnesses.

“We are concerned about this approach because we feel that the things that need to be in place to assist people and to get real change are not actually there.”

Mr Jetter agreed, saying a combination of support and financial repercussions should be the solution.

“I appreciate the fact that it might be a mental health issue, but the mental health of the residents around him are being impacted,” he said. “Taking it away is a good first step and then maybe going in there and counselling [them] to get some help.”

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Alistair Coe read an email from a concerned neighbour of a hoarder yesterday when he tabled the new bill in the Legislative Assembly “We wonder if this distressing issue would continue for quite so long if it was occurring in a house adjunct to a Canberra public landmark or even an MLA’s residence”. Food for thought!

Living next to that garbage heap, my mental health would be severely impacted. The nature strip is being blocked and is a hazard. At least clean that part up.

Support? Later

Typical Canberra. My neighbour has at least 25 cars on his property and surrounding areas of the street. The cars are damaged, unregistered, left with their windows down and filled with random junk. Every six months I contact the City Rangers to see if at least some of the cars can be removed. And effectively, no, the guy has mental health issues. For years I’ve had to live in the midst of a car junkyard – so what about my mental health?

Mike of Canberra10:41 pm 14 Aug 19

For an allegedly intelligent, well-educated community, Canberrans have a curious habit of being diverted to the nearest blind alley or foxhole when it comes to analysing and addressing important issues. The fact is that filthy properties are a hazard to the surrounding community due to the vermin and other hazards they bring to neighbouring residents. A very high proportion of such cases has little to do with the psychology of hoarding and a lot to do with sheer laziness. These are the properties where the grass is never mown, rubbish is strewn around the yard and the surrounding neighbourhoods gradually become no-go zones.

A very high proportion of such properties, but not all, fall within the ACT Government’s own area of responsibility, ie public housing in one form or another. Where is the effort by the Government to clean up its own mess? Not apparent to me, that’s for sure. And if one component of the problem is hoarding and this is a mental health issue, surely this is known to the ACT Government as the landlord. Where, therefore, are its initiatives to address not only hoarding but all instances of laziness and slovenliness in its own properties, if not more broadly?

The fact is that such measures are nowhere in sight. The Liberals at the very least have made a start in seeking to address what are pretty serious urban problems in some areas at least. Maybe they need to do more work. What none of us needs is for head-in-the-sand Canberrans to grasp at the latest red herring when a serious issue comes to light.

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