Sunday 19 August 2012

Hoarders: They can't bring themselves to throw stuff away

Hoarding: Common problem in small rental flats
MPs say issue hard to eradicate, with neighbours unaware as hoarders pose no disturbances
By Jalelah Abu Baker and Janice Tai, The Straits Times, 17 Aug 2012

GETTING inside Mr Oh Chuan Ho's one-room rental home (right) in Marsiling Road is a real squeeze. The 33 sq m space is packed with five years' worth of junk.

On the right are bags, whose contents he is not even aware of as they belong to his partner. Stacked in the home are brochures, used containers, and even an empty hamster cage.

Mr Oh, 55, has lived with his 71-year-old partner in the flat for the past 13 years.

But it was only about five years ago that, to his discomfort, she started collecting everything that people gave her.

He is unemployed while she is a tea lady in an office.

Hoarding in rental flats is a common problem, voluntary welfare organisations told The Straits Times.

Mr Anthony Teo, a senior programme coordinator at Thong Kheng Senior Activity Centre, said two out of every 10 households visited by staff from his organisation have a hoarding problem.

But it is not only those living in rental flats who hoard.

Earlier this week, the body of a 76-year-old man, known only as Mr Quek, was found in his Bedok Reservoir flat amid an array of trash such as toys, Chinese New Year decorations and clothes.

He lived alone in his four-room unit.

An HDB spokesman said it had received feedback from his wife that he was storing unwanted items. Staff carried out follow-up inspections and advised him to remove them.

"Our officers have made arrangements with his wife to clear the unwanted items from the flat," said the spokesman.

She added that HDB will conduct investigations if it receives feedback that residents are hoarding objects that could be fire hazards.

It will also advise the owners or tenants to remove the items from the flat and help to dispose of them if needed.

Residents' committees and grassroots leaders may help the HDB to persuade the owners to cooperate, she said.

A spokesman for Aljunied-Hougang Town Council, which is in charge of the area where Mr Quek lived, said that items in flats were outside the scope of its powers.

MPs told The Straits Times the problem is not widespread, but remains hard to eradicate.

Jurong GRC MP Halimah Yacob said she had seen four or five cases in the last 10 years.

"I believe that neighbours do not know of the hoarding situation because hoarders usually pose no disturbances to neighbours and don't want contact," she said.

"It's difficult for neighbours to help them or even detect the issue."

Tanjong Pagar GRC MP Lily Neo, whose ward has more than 5,000 rental flats, said the hoarding problem has improved over the years due to continued efforts by her and her team.

"Those who are clear-minded do listen to me when I tell them about bed bugs, and that they may develop a cough living in that kind of air, but some are stubborn," she said.

Dr Lee Cheng, chief of the Department of Community Psychiatry at the Institute of Mental Health, said that such behaviour could be due to illnesses like obsessive compulsive disorder, schizophrenia and dementia.

He added that the hoarders he comes across tend to be isolated and have a low socio-economic status.

However, not all of those who hoard do so out of mental illness, said gerontology nurse Peter Chou. Some do it for sentimental reasons, or because they believe the items can be sold when they need money.

It is crucial to address the problem of hoarding because it is often the people around the hoarder who suffer, said Dr Carol Tan- Goh, a specialist in geriatric medicine at Raffles Hospital.

"The habit becomes disruptive and children move out of the house and relationships with neighbours deteriorate."

Children have given up trying to get mother to clear out the flat
By Janice Tai, The Straits Times, 17 Aug 2012

MS HUANG, 28, may have a five-room flat to call home, but she spent most of her childhood studying in school or nearby fast-food eateries.

Her housewife mother has been hoarding items for the past 20 years.

"I sleep in front of the TV set as there are stacks of plastic bags filled with clothing and shoes on my bed," said the teacher, who declined to give her full name.

Items first started piling up in the study 20 years ago, and then began encroaching into the bedrooms, living room and kitchen. The air became stale because rubbish was stacked all the way to the ceiling.

Frustrated with having a home that functioned more like a storeroom, Ms Huang moved out of the flat last year. For her, the simple daily chore of clearing the garbage became a long-drawn tussle as her mother would demand to check the contents before they were allowed out of the house. Only perishables like food were thrown away. Ms Huang and her two sisters had to hide garbage in their bags when they left the house, or take out the trash when their mother was asleep.

They have given up trying to convince their mother to visit a psychiatrist as she turns hysterical at the subject.

Ms Huang said: "We just want some peace and quiet in the house. I am resigned to the fact that things will clear up only if a fire breaks out or if she dies, but I don't wish for either to happen."

Elderly man so upset he could not watch clear-up
By Janice Tai, The Straits Times, 17 Aug 2012

BEFORE Housing Board officials came to his one-room rental flat in King George's Avenue last year to clear the items he had been hoarding over the years, 70-year-old Mr Tan, whose full name cannot be revealed, was so distraught that he left.

Officials had to break the lock and remove trash piled all the way to the ceiling. It was a two-day process that involved lorries carting the items away.

"He had given the green light for the items to be cleared but he went missing and came back only later that day," said Mr Choo Jin Kiat, executive director of O'Joy Care Services, which provides counselling for the elderly.

With 90 per cent of the items removed, the retiree now has space to sleep in his living room rather than at the void deck. In the past, his living room and kitchen were filled with rubbish he collected after rummaging through bins.

It was not easy getting him to let go of his possessions. His O'Joy counsellor took six months to explain the dangers of hoarding. Each time the counsellor visited, he could find a path only from the door to the kitchen toilet, as every spot was filled with items such as used clothing and furniture.

Being on the Public Assistance scheme, in which the needy get a monthly stipend from the Government, Mr Tan claimed he hoarded things to sell in order to get extra pocket money. "But he never sells the items to the rag and bone man," said Mr Choo.

After Mr Tan's flat was cleared, counsellors continued to visit him for the next four months to ensure he had adapted well to the change.

"He is spending less time cooped up now and goes to the senior activity centre to read newspapers," said Mr Choo. "But we are still worried as he is... starting to collect things again."

Holding on to discarded items in the hope of selling them
By Jalelah Abu Baker, The Straits Times, 17 Aug 2012

MADAM Ghim Peck Choo (right), 48, earns $15 a day working four hours at McDonald's, but it is not enough to support her and her jobless husband.

She started collecting discarded items six years ago, selling them to a scrap collector who comes twice a week. She earns between $5 and $20 each time, depending on what she manages to sell.

But the rest of the items have found a permanent spot in the living room of her three-room flat in Yishun Street 11.

There are paint cans, newspapers, shoes and crossword puzzle books.

She cannot bring herself to throw out things that have remained unsold, in the hope they may still be sold.

Town council officers have visited her flat and taken photos twice this year, but she has not done anything about clearing her collection. But she does throw away items such as torn clothes that are beyond repair.

"Wow, people are so rich, they throw away so many things that can be used," she said, adding that the polo T-shirt and shorts she had on were among her finds.

Madam Ghim suffers from high blood pressure and diabetes and her husband is unable to work because of a leg injury.

Their daughter, 27, lives with her mother-in-law.

She said they do not have enough money to pay utility bills, and depend on goodwill.

She acknowledged that her collection was unsightly.

"I don't want to make a mess, but I need to eat," she said.

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