Story behind the story: Hidden hoarders

Story behind the story: Hidden hoarders

PORTLAND, Ore. – Anna Canzano hadn’t thought a whole lot about hoarding before she started working on a story about it.

Now she knows so much, she’ll never look at her garage the same way.

By the time Canzano’s investigation was finished, Multnomah County had revamped the way it deals with hoarders – and Canzano had revamped the way she thinks about clutter.

“If you only judge me by my garage, I am a total hoarder,” she laughed.

Are you a hoarder? Check out this test one expert uses.

The investigation started in June, when a Multnomah County task force met to assess what resources they had to intervene in a problem that has grown in notoriety, if not scope.

Canzano has done stories on hoarders before. In fact, she revisted a former hoarder she interviewed six years ago named Mary Beth Miles, and found that she's recovering.

You'd be surprised how emotional covering people with overly cluttered houses can be.

"Just sadness, incredible sadness, that people are living this way," Canzano said. "There's just so much shame involved - people hide from the outside world."

What Canzano quickly found was a clear need by emergency crews to compile a list of addresses belonging to known hoarders. Hoarding presents serious challenges for rescue workers, who feel both they and people in danger would be better served if crews knew what they were facing when they set out for an address.

"I think the turning point for me was realizing what could be done," she said. "It was realizing that there are people around our metro area who care, who realize the gravity of this but haven't figured out a way to help."

Canzano talked to social-service experts and emergency workers. Again and again, she heard the same thing - it's very difficult to help hoarders becasue of legimate privacy and civil-rights concerns.

“The real way that anything gets solved with hoarding is that you’ve gotta get the health department on board, you’ve gotta get the fire department on board, because people have the right to live where they want to live,” Canzano said. “You can’t just commit somebody for being a hoarder.”

The very real safety risks – not just to hoarders, but to their neighbors – bothered Canzano. So, she made some calls. A lot of calls, in fact.

Eventually, she turned up agencies in Seattle and Minnesota that had found a roundabout solution.

“They were able to get around that by saying ‘Look, we’re just collecting addresses, not names,” she said. “It’s the same as when dispatchers know when they send a cop to a home with a history of domestic violence. Firefighters should know when they’re going to a home with hoarders.”

She brought what she’d found to Multnomah County and got the best possible answer – they loved it, and were excited to change the way they do business.

It’s what you hope for when you get into journalism – even if it’s not what you get every time out.

“It felt good,” Canzano said. “To actually make a difference and reach out to people that have done this in other cities and tell it to the people who are working on it and see things change for the better.”

Are people becoming more aware that hoarding is a problem? Here's a Google Ngram that tracks the word's usage from 1960-2008, the most recent year for which data is available. Notice the sharp spike around 2000: