British Columbia

More resources needed to deal with hoarders: UBC professor

A professor at the University of British Columbia is calling for more resources to help people who suffer from hoarding disorder after a recent study found seven per cent of Downtown Eastside single room occupancy units contain excessive clutter.

A recent study found 7% of Downtown Eastside SROs in Vancouver contain excessive clutter

An apartment filled with hoarded, floor-to-ceiling piles of old newspapers, rumpled clothes, books, shopping bags, food scraps, knickknacks and stacks of old records. (Jack Sherratt/Associated Press)

A professor at the University of British Columbia is calling for more resources to help people who suffer from hoarding disorder after a recent study found seven per cent of Downtown Eastside single room occupancy units contain excessive clutter.

The study was done using data collected by the City of Vancouver's Property Use Inspections team in its routine inspections of the thousands of small, low-income SROs on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

"I actually think we need a coordinated system for helping people with these kinds of issues, but I don't know many places, even in the world, that have gotten there yet," said Sheila Woody, professor of psychology at UBC, adding that Vancouver is doing better than many cities.

Woody and the other authors of the study, which was published in the journal Housing Studies, found that three per cent of the 8,500 rooms were considered "severely cluttered," meaning that the doors couldn't be fully opened or that fire escapes weren't accessible.

Sheila Woody's work as professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia has focused on hoarding behaviour for the last five years. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Woody, whose work has focused on hoarding for the last five years, is quick to point out that the study looks at clutter and debris, rather than hoarding, since hoarding refers to behaviour and the residents were not interviewed for the study. But she calls the high rate of problematically cluttered SROs "worrisome."

It's difficult to make a comparison with the rate of hoarding found in neighbourhoods outside the Downtown Eastside, but according to Woody, other studies have found it to be much lower.

"The studies that have been done on general population prevalence suggest between two per cent and 5.8 per cent of people have problems with hoarding," she said, adding that hoarding behaviour comes with serious safety risks.

"I'd say the primary concern is always fire safety," she said. "There are also other concerns, like concerns about avalanche or other unstable surroundings, and it's more difficult to manage pests."

In February, a man was found dead and partially buried under debris in a SRO on East Hastings Street, and in January, 2013, a Burnaby man in his 70s was rescued after becoming trapped in hoarded debris for three days.

Vancouver firefighters begin to decontaminate, after unearthing a body in February of 2016 that was partially buried in hoarded junk in Vancouver. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

"There's always a need for more resources. Hoarding is a challenging problem. The city has put a lot of resources into public health and safety, having the fire prevention office working on that, as well as preventing eviction," said Woody.

"They're still really under-resourced and a lot more needs to be done, and I think, especially in the Downtown Eastside, because the people there are so vulnerable, like, if they get evicted, where else are they going to go?"

Woody says the coordinated system she would like to see would include more clinicians within the provincial health care system that are trained to help people with hoarding problems. 

Continued research

Woody and her team at UBC are carrying out a long-term study to better understand how a hoarder's mind works, so that efforts to help them can be more effective.

"What makes people make the decisions that they make about their objects? Once we understand that, we can figure out better ways to help them," she said.

Centre for Collaborative Research on Hoarding research coordinator Peter Lenkic and UBC graduate student May Luu demonstrate one of the tests used to study hoarding behaviour. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Woody is looking for test subjects who have problems with hoarding and some who don't. Participants will be put through a series of games that will assess their attention, spatial manipulation, and memory. They'll get paid between $40 and $60.

Anyone interested in taking part in the study can contact the Centre for Collaborative Research on Hoarding at UBC at 604-822-8025.