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Spotlight: Hoarding Task Force of Washtenaw County

Disclaimer: The Hoarding Task Force receives referrals from community agencies and first responders. Please note that the phone is not answered immediately, instead callers are prompted to leave a voicemail. The Hoarding Task Force does NOT provide housekeeping/chore services. 

[This interview was conducted before Covid 19. Call the agency directly for services and information that may have changed.]

The Washtenaw County Elder Justice Coalition is a group of health and social service practitioners and community members working to acknowledge and prevent elder abuse in Washtenaw County through awareness, education, advocacy, and enhanced partnerships.  

We’ll be interviewing members of the Coalition, as well as representatives from other community organizations, to help our audience understand what resources are available and how to access them.  

Recently we spoke with Diane Fenske of the Hoarding Task Force of Washtenaw County. Based out of Synod Community Services, the task force works with individuals to help achieve their goals and ensure that all people have access to safe and appropriate housing. They also work to raise awareness of hoarding throughout the county. 

Ahead of the Curve: If you had to give an “elevator speech” about what your organization does, how would you describe it? 

Diane Fenske: I would say that the Hoarding Task Force of Washtenaw County is a group of private and public agencies and volunteers who have spent the last 15 or 16 years trying to raise awareness of hoarding behavior or hoarding disorder in Washtenaw County and trying to preserve safe and appropriate housing for residents.  

AoTC: What happens when you get a phone call/referral? 

DF: We get a referral via telephone usually, oftentimes from professionals. It might be a hospital social worker, a community agency, or the fire department. Huron Valley Ambulance might go out and see a home that was hoarded, and they will call somebody on the task force or our voicemail. We don’t have a line that gets called immediately when you call, but we have a voicemail that we check throughout the week. We get a call, we get a referral, and when I’m answering calls, I typically call back within 48 hours to get some information (e.g., what led you to call? Why do you think this person is a hoarder?). I try to gather information and do what others would say is a social work assessment to figure out what we need to know.  

It’s important to identify who the caller is. If it’s a potential client themselves calling, that’s one thing. Lots of times we get calls from family members or friends who are well-intentioned and really want to make a difference for someone, but they don’t necessarily have the permission of their friend/family member to talk to us. We speak confidentially and I have to assure them that we can’t act on their request. I can only go visit someone who’s in trouble due to hoarding if they allow me to come into their home.  

I’ve been thrown off a lot of porches where people allow you to come over, they make an appointment, then they have second/third/fourth thoughts before you get there and they say “I’m done,” they don’t even come to the door. I mean, it’s kind of frustrating when you know this person needs some help and you’re there, and you know they’re inside, but they don’t answer the door. They withdraw and it’s too scary to let someone see their hoard.  

It’s easy for someone to call and say, “please look into this,” but none of us can look into something we haven’t been given permission to look into. One thing that’s important to know about us is that we are all volunteers. The HTF is not an agency, we are made up of many, many agencies and groups. People think that we have some sort of authority to do something, we do not. Everybody on the task force has a “day job.”  

AoTC: How long does the process take? 

DF: We call within two business days to get more information after getting the initial call. A volunteer might work with someone in their home for weeks or months and months. I’ve been on the HTF for seven years and I’ve known some people the entire seven years. Some of them are in a good place, and some of them might have made a return. I just got a call this morning from a woman I worked with four years ago and is looking for some guidance.  

AoTC: What organizations do you work closely with? 

DF: Synod Community Services in Ypsilanti is sort of our base of operations because the chairperson is in management there. When I first started attending, I was a representative of Jewish Family Services. Now that I don’t work at JFS I’m kind of a community volunteer. I teach part time at Eastern Michigan University’s School of Social Work so it’s nice, I think, for Eastern to have a link to this kind of a group and Eastern agrees. We have people from Catholic Social Services, we have people from the city of Ann Arbor, the fire department, fire inspectors, and we can have the police department if we need it. We have building code, rental inspectors from Pittsfield Township. we usually try to have someone from the University of Michigan’s Housing Bureau for Seniors and we also have a lawyer from Legal Services of Southcentral Michigan. We need that legal expertise to tell us what we can and can’t do. Typically, first responders are the ones who find out that someone is hoarding. Oftentimes Huron Valley Ambulance finds out because they come in to do an emergency of some sort and they can hardly get in the door or they can’t get their stretcher into the door.  

AoTC: What are some things you wish the public knew about your role?  

DF: Hoarding is not something we’re going to fix today. It’s not like calling Catholic Social Services and saying “I need food” or something like that. But if someone is in danger of being evicted or has been given an eviction notice that does become a crisis because it is a time-limited event.  

There’s a lot of things we can’t do or change because it’s up to the individual who’s hoarding or collecting things to make the decision in their head and heart that says “I’m ready to change.” if they’re not willing to do that, we won’t make progress with them. We might make a little progress, but we find their heart’s not in it or they’re not ready for real change, so their home becomes messy again. They have to buy into the idea that there’s a really good reason for them to make a change.  

You might say “what are those reasons for them to change?” well, number one: they want to preserve their housing, especially if they’re renting. They don’t want to be evicted. They want to regain friendships, potentially, or family relationships that have been lost because no one will come to their home because they hoard. Maybe their children won’t being the grandchildren over because they’re afraid of injury or think that the hoarder is not clean because they hoard, or they may have bugs in their house or something. There’s all kinds of misconceptions about what hoarding really is. Or they want to establish new relationships with friends or family members. They just tire of it, or maybe they’re had health issues that have been directly linked to the stuff in their house (e.g., a fall) and they want to regain some health. Or maybe their friends and family members have been on them to make a change. Pressure from family and friends for some people can make a difference, for some people it doesn’t matter what someone says, they’re content with things the way they are. That’s how those relationships fracture.  

AoTC: What tips do you have for someone with a loved one that needs assistance? 

DF: The first thing they need to do is talk to the person who is collecting or hoarding and find out why are they saving these items, how important are the items to them, do they want to make a change, if so- why? Or what would help them decide to make a change. Find out what they want to do. Know that you can’t force this change. I don’t care how close you are with your mother or grandmother; you can’t force them to make a change. It’s up to them as long they’re cognitively intact and make their own decisions. One of the biggest things you have to have with a capital P is patience. You have to have patience with the person who’s hoarding. Patience to wait until they’re ready, patience to maybe think “oh my gosh, we’ve been here all day and we’ve emptied one box.” Many of us at one point in time have watched one of the television shows “Hoarders” or “Hoarders: Buried Alive” and the situations that they show are real- no one could make that up.  

The situation and the person at the center of the situation are real. What’s not real for us is the way they go in and resolve the situation by bringing in a psychologist and in one or two days the place is entirely cleaned out. That’s not the way we would ever do anything. I think it’s important to mention that we operate under what’s called the harm reduction model. The foundation of the harm reduction model is to bring the level of something down and not to erase it entirely. If someone wants to clean their house entirely because that’s the pressure they’re under, that’s a whole different story.  

Most of the time our goal is to bring the collection down to a manageable size so that the home is safer, more comfortable, has emergency exits and paths, and that the person can live a better quality of life and keep their home safer and more comfortable. We break things down to a manageable level where the person knows what’s in their home and help them develop an organizational system that they can actually live with when we leave. You have to start small, be an extraordinary cheerleader, have huge patience, and if someone’s cleared the top off a dining room table but it’s taken a month to get there, that is still a victory for that individual that lives there. It’s hard for family members and well-intentioned friends who really want to do something positive to understand that this can go slow- especially if they watch the tv shows. This has got to be a no-judgement zone. We don’t judge someone’s reasons for saving something, even if it looks like trash to you or me- it’s not to that person. We have to be respectful and treat them with dignity.  

AoTC: Is there anything you would like to add? 

DF: We’re not a housekeeping service. We’re not a cleaning service. We have been known to help people sort through their things and decide what to keep, but that’s very different and we do it over a long period of time. 

We have wonderful volunteers, which we always need more of by the way. The HTF is always in need of volunteers to work with people an hour at a time. We ask for a commitment of six months to a year from a new volunteer. We ask for them to put in one to three hours a month. We don’t ask people to work past their tolerance. If it’s very stressful to be in someone’s home with a lot of stuff, we may stay for an hour. We don’t stay for hours and hours to see what we can do. If they go to our website there’s a whole tab for volunteer opportunities and the application is right on the website. Volunteers get training from us. They have someone from the HTF do supervision with them. We don’t expect them to go out and figure things out by themselves. I drop in every couple weeks to check in and make sure everything is going smoothly. We find that our best volunteers are college students. Older adults enjoy having a young person in the house to talk to while they’re doing this. You learn so much about hoarding behaviors and a mental health disorder that’s not well understood by seeing it firsthand.  

It’s also important to mention that hoarding is a debilitating psychological disorder for people that’s characterized by collecting usually large volumes of items or possessions that to you or I would have absolutely no value (e.g., newspapers), but to that person that is something they hoard. Once they’re into hoarding, they don’t know how to get out of it. Our goal is to try and help bring in other agencies to try and find a way to get this person the help they need. We also look in to see if they need Adult or Child Protective Services to be brought in. You just don’t know what you’ll find when you go into a home. In Washtenaw County, we tend to work primarily with older adults.  

Thank you to Diane Fenske for giving us information about this valuable community program. If you want to learn more about the Hoarding Task Force, you can visit their website.  

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