Nova Scotia

'It's like an addiction': Help for hoarders being offered in Halifax

The Family Service Association in Halifax is offering a program to help a growing number of people in the area who are being buried by their own belongings.

'It becomes overwhelming when your house is filled,' says a self-described shopaholic

In this file photo, a man moves through items stored at a Toronto home that had to be cleaned out by firefighters. There's a new program in Halifax to help hoarders. (David Donnelly/CBC)

A new program offered by the Family Service Association in Halifax is trying to curb the growing number of people in the municipality who are being buried by their own belongings. 

The association is a not-for-profit agency that offers professional counselling and education services.   

In the last four years or so, workers at the association have seen about a dozen people come to them annually for help dealing with hoarding. 

"A lot of them parallel what we see on reality TV, the tiny pathway that takes you from the front door to the one chair — everything else loaded with stuff — to those homes that just save or hoard one particular object, so it runs the gamut," said association executive director Valerie Bobyk.

Few places to seek help

She said there were few or no programs to help hoarders in the area so the association started its own.

Bobyk estimates it costs $25,000 to run the program, about one-third of which is being paid for by the Mental Health Foundation. 

The association hopes to raise the rest of the money through donations.

Reality TV shows that outline the dangers of hoarding are helping people seek help for the problem. This apartment in Ontario was occupied by a hoarder. (Andrea Bellemare/CBC)

Hoarders will have 10 weeks of counselling with staff who have a masters degree in social work. When that's completed, a professional is brought in to help clean out the person's home.   

"We're all about recapturing some of the living space. We hope the lightened atmosphere in the home, maybe additional window light or having less stuff around … will help with the compounding mental health issues like depression or social anxiety or whatever," Bobyk said.     

She said at the root of hoarding there is usually some kind of mental health problem. Hoarding can be brought on by everything from grief to an obsessive compulsive behaviour. 

People have already enrolled in the program. The home visit to begin decluttering is scheduled for the middle of June.

'My stuff is not junk'

Sylvia Dolomont can relate to people in Halifax who are losing living space to their belongings. 

The North Sydney woman has filled an entire house with all the purchases she's made. Everything from power tools, clothes, jewelry, to numerous toasters and coffee pots. 

But Dolomont does not consider herself a hoarder. She prefers to be described as a shopaholic who never gets rid of anything.

Sylvia Dolomont of North Sydney says she is addicted to shopping and admits she has filled an entire house with mostly unused belongings. (Yvonne Leblanc-Smith/CBC)

"I thought hoarders had junk in their house, right? Went around picking stuff up, and mine is all new — my stuff is not junk, it's brand new."   

In the last few years, she's realized she needs to ease off on her shopping. 

"I was just buying so much, and it gets so that it becomes overwhelming when your house is filled," she said. 

"I guess you have to stop. It's like an addiction to drinking or smoking, or drugs, drug addicts, right? When you see something, you want it."     

193 garbage bags full of clothes

Dolomont said she once spent $50,000 on items from the Shopping Channel that she never even opened and she recently removed 193 garbage bags full of clothes from her house. 

She said she simply loves shopping and never considered it a problem because she always paid her bills on time, only bought things on sale and wouldn't shop if she didn't have the money. 

Sylvia Dolomont's house on Campbell Street in North Sydney is at the centre of a dispute between her and Cape Breton Regional Municipality. (Yvonne LeBlanc-Smith/CBC)

Dolomont believes the new program for hoarders in Halifax is a great idea and would consider taking part in it if it ever expanded to Cape Breton.

She no longer lives in the home that houses the majority of her belongings. In fact, the Cape Breton Regional Municipality has fought to have the building demolished. 

So far the demolition hasn't happened and Dolomont is challenging the municipality's plans. 

'There's bugs and fleas and fecal matter'

Cleaning companies in Halifax are familiar with the problem.

Louise Downs owns the House Whisperer, a company that offers cleaning and organization services. 

Some hoarders seek help from professional cleaning companies but often can't part with things unless they have received counselling. (Radio-Canada)

She said two or three times a year they encounter hoarders who are looking to hire them. 

"We've seen clean hoarders who they buy things and they've got things stocked up to the ceiling but everything is organized — meticulously organized, even — with aisles going through their house," said Downs. 

"But we've also seen homes where it's quite extreme, there's bugs and fleas and fecal matter, that sort of thing."

She said about half the hoarders they meet are not ready to part with their belongings and don't end up booking a cleaning and decluttering. Downs thinks the new program could help fill a gap her service can't. 

"Usually when they contact us, they've had no kind of support in any way so they're not ready to let go and change their lifestyle, so if they've been counselled … I would say that they would be ready."