PORTLAND, Maine — What may look like garbage to many people — everything from old newspapers and soda bottles to half-eaten food or animal carcasses — can be things a person battling a hoarding condition can’t bring themselves to throw away.

The documentary-style television show “Hoarding: Buried Alive,” on the cable station TLC, has brought a whole new wave of attention to extreme cases of compulsive hoarding, where people face unsanitary living conditions and structurally unstable homes because of the items packed in over years of collecting.

Those conditions are being found more and more often in the Greater Portland area, local officials say, and an area task force and response team, the first such groups in the state, are being launched to respond to the growing hoarding problem.

Tammy Munson, director of Portland’s inspections division, said it’s hard to know whether more residents are hoarding or just more are being identified because relatives and neighbors have seen the television show and recognize it as a disorder now. But in either case, it’s become an issue city officials have had to deal with carefully.

“We haven’t historically tracked them as an individual case type,” Munson said “But in years past we might have had one [case] every four to six months, and now we’ve had four of five just over the past two months. And they’re pretty extreme in nature, the ones we’ve been dealing with recently.”

Rob Hunt is a technician with the Gorham-based BioSpecialists LLC, a private company that performs large-scale cleanups of homes where hoarding has taken place. He told the BDN during a recent interview that his teams will often have to throw their shoes away after finishing at a job site because they can’t remove the smell of rotting food, animal urine or other substances that have built up at the homes.

Hunt said on one occasion, he found the homeowner’s heirloom engagement ring buried under a layer of debris on the floor nearly a foot deep.

Linda Weare, Portland’s director of elder affairs, said she can think of one occasion in which the hoarder’s home was not salvageable, as animal urine had been allowed to soak into the floorboards to a point where the building was unstable and too expensive to fix.

“Sometimes there’s garbage that doesn’t get thrown out for years, and then you get mice and you get insects, and it becomes a sanitation issue,” Weare said. “Some of these houses become so full of stuff that they become non-functional — you can’t use the kitchen or the bathroom, because they’re all used for storage.”

The easy solution to an outsider — pull in with a Dumpster and start throwing things away by the shovel-full — can be traumatic and ineffective when dealing with a person battling a hoarding disorder, Munson and Weare both said.

“The approach you could take with these, from an enforcement standpoint, would be to give them a citation and take them to court, but that approach doesn’t work,” Munson said. “They will still be facing this disorder and in a few years, they’d be right back where they started.

“This is something that’s a really debilitating condition for people, and it takes a lot of compassion to deal with,” she continued. “It’s very painful for these people to remove these items. It may look like clutter or junk to a lot of people, but each of these items has value to these people. They could pick up a piece of rusted metal in the backyard and tell you exactly what they believe it’s useful for.”

Added Weare: “You can’t go in too forcefully or expect too much right off. You can’t go into an apartment and say, ‘This needs to all be cleaned out.’ It’s an impossible thing you’re asking. It doesn’t work.”

Instead, the city this summer plans to launch a hoarding response team, an inspections division group which will be first in line for training on the condition and prepared to help hoarders find the counseling and resources available to deal with their impulses to hoard.

“[The hoarding is] often connected with some trauma that people have experienced,” said Weare, noting that the collection of items may give the client a subconscious sense of control or security. “Part of the counseling is unraveling that and getting to the root of what’s really causing the behavior.”

In addition to the city-level response team, a Greater Portland Hoarding Task Force has also been formed and meets monthly. The task force, led by social worker Eric Grainger of Shalom House in Portland, is hoping to hold a fall conference on the subject.

Both groups will work to identify funds — potentially in the form of grants — to help with cleanup efforts in hoarding cases, as many of the homeowners don’t have the means to tackle the job themselves even if they warm up to letting go of the items.

“Funding for this is a problem,” Weare said. “If we get this response team organized, one of the things we’ll probably do is seek some funding for cleanup efforts. Sometimes people have enough money to pay for somebody to come with a big Dumpster to help clean up. But sometimes there’s no money and no resources — and even if we get them to agree to it, [we have to think about] who will do this, because nobody does it for free.”

Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.