Canberra Living Conditions Network
Developing a coordinated response to Squalor and Hoarding
in the Canberra Community

Definitions

What is Squalor?

Squalor is a condition that is often described as filthy, unclean and foul and one which has come about through a lack of care and cleanliness or through general neglect. It usually presents itself with an accumulation of rubbish and an individual’s inability or desire to not dispose of household waste. Neglect involves a failure to remove household waste and other rubbish as well as a failure to appropriately maintain the structure (both internal and external) of a house, the yards, gardens and utilities (such as plumbing, gas and electrics)

(Definitions Reference – NSW Squalor and Hoarding Tool Kit – Catholic Community Services – NSW/ACT)

Few studies have systematically examined squalor in the Australian context. Cases differ greatly between each other relating to so many other complexities including a person’s health status. Determining how common squalor is rests on isolated research with discrete groups in specific geographic areas. International and national approaches to compulsive hoarding and/or squalor consistently present what works and what doesn’t work from a clinical and practical perspective. These two perspectives must work hand-in-hand to be best placed to comprehensively support people living in these environments.

People who hoard or live in squalor tend to be resistant to intervention so defining success is difficult.

Treatments for compulsive hoarding may contribute to improvement in cases where squalor is attributable to restricted access, due to clutter.

Squalid living conditions relate to a complex range of causes, at times related to hoarding behaviours, but other times to mental health and other conditions involving substance abuse.

(Discussion Paper Hoarding and Squalor 2012, Ageing and Age Care Branch, Department of Health, Victoria, p2)

Squalor describes an unsanitary living environment that has arisen from extreme and/or prolonged neglect and poses substantial health and safety risks to people or animals residing in the affected premises, as well as in the community.

Severe domestic squalor is a term used primarily in Australia and refers to households that are extremely cluttered, in an unsanitary or terrible condition, and where the accumulation of items such as personal possessions, rubbish, excrement and decomposing food creates an environment that jeopardises the health and wellbeing of the occupants. In addition, daily living activities such as cooking, bathing and sleeping are difficult or impossible.

Extreme cases of severe domestic squalor can also impact on neighbours, through the property being a fire hazard, emitting a foul odour or harbouring vermin.

(Hoarding and Severe Domestic Squalor: A Guideline for Western Australia, 2013 p. 8)

What is Hoarding?

Hoarding and cluttering involves excessive collection of items (which appear to have little or no value) and a failure to remove or discard them. This often means that the environment in which they are being kept becomes so cluttered that it can no longer be used for the purpose for which it was designed. This will consequently impair the basic living activities (such as cooking, cleaning, sleeping, showering and moving) of the occupant.

(Definitions Reference – NSW Squalor and Hoarding Tool Kit – Catholic Community Services – NSW/ACT)

People who compulsively hoard are unable to resist the urge to acquire possessions and are unable to organise or discard, even at the point of excess, which leads to cluttered living spaces.

Compulsive hoarding is not as yet a clearly diagnosed health condition in its own right.

The compulsive hoarding condition is pervasive, dominates time, space and personal functioning of the person and others, contributing to unhealthy and unsafe living environments. It is evidenced by symptoms such as severe impact on the person’s living environment, their work life, social patterns, health status, family relationships, capacity to build and maintain friendships, diminishing financial means, enhanced likelihood of engagement with justice, legal and civil authorities and cause of high distress with neighbours.

(Discussion Paper Hoarding and Squalor 2012, Ageing and Age Care Branch, Department of Health, Victoria, p1)

Nearly everyone keeps some things that they don’t need or use. Keeping items in case they become useful in the future is fairly common.

For compulsive hoarders however, this behaviour is far more extreme.

People who compulsively hoard keep things for the same reasons as anyone else:

  • For sentimental value and emotional attachment,
  • For utility value and future usefulness, and
  • For aesthetic value

Compulsive hoarders acquire more items than non-hoarders and although the items may be similar, people who hoard often collect identical and multiple types of the same item. Initially the individual’s possessions may be organised but as the volume of items increases, disorganisation generally follows.

For people who hoard, getting rid of extra possessions is extremely difficult and emotionally exhausting. Organising their possessions is also difficult and resisting the impulse to acquire new things is almost impossible.

There is no explicit definition of compulsive hoarding however the widely accepted international definition of compulsive hoarding is made up of three primary characteristics:

  • The acquisition of and failure to discard a large number of possessions that appear to be useless or of limited value.
  • Living spaces are cluttered to the point that they can’t be used for the activities for which they were designed.
  • Significant distress or impairment in functioning, caused by the hoarding.(Frost & Gross 1993)

(Hoarding and Severe Domestic Squalor: A Guideline for Western Australia, p.5 (year?)

What is Animal Hoarding?

Animal hoarding is the accumulation of large numbers of animals that overwhelms the person’s ability to provide a minimum standard of nutrition, sanitation and veterinary care.

Treatment for animal hoarders is complex and rarely successful with recidivism rates very high. The hoarders need on-going treatment and support and unlike in cases of the hoarding of inanimate objects, the welfare of the hoarded items (in this case animals) must be considered. The hoarded animals usually need to be rescued and given veterinary care. However, the removal of the animals from the hoarders is extremely traumatic for the hoarders, thus increasing the need for care and support of the hoarders.

The animals often need extensive treatment and rehabilitation before they have any chance to be re-homed. Unfortunately, sometimes some animals cannot be rehabilitated sufficiently and are unable to be re-homed.

The RSPCA adopts various approaches when dealing with animal hoarders. RSPCA sees prosecution as the last resort and understands that animal hoarding represents a mental health issue. The RSPCA:

  • Works with the hoarder to downsize and care for fewer animals.
  • Encourages hoarders to relinquish animals to the care of the RSPCA (often over several visits) for care and rehoming. Encourages hoarder to seek help and support from psychologists and/or psychiatrists.
  • Threatens legal action when animal hoarder not responding to persuasion.
  • Prosecutes when absolutely necessary to transfer animals into the care of the RSPCA. This option is the only one that is likely to work with the exploiter type of hoarder.

Sustainable management and treatment presents significant challenges for service providers due to:

  • Poor understanding of the condition amongst health professionals and members of the public, and no well-defined or recognised treatment options ensures management is problematic.
  • Management is necessarily complex and must involve multiple agencies. This poses organisational challenges.
  • There is a conflict between doing what is best for the person and what is best for the animals. Removing animals is only the start of the journey to find them new homes, and is a traumatic event for the hoarders.
  • Locating premises where animal hoarding is occurring can be difficult and depends on referrals from others.
  • Issues of confidentiality and civil rights can become involved depending on who first becomes aware of the problem.
  • Animal hoarders seldom initiate treatment and when treatment is mandated they seldom comply.

(Source: www.hoardinginbrisbane.com)

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