“De-cluttered” by Public Housing

April 19, 2014 § Leave a comment

When Cliff Martin returned to his apartment last week, much of his stuff was gone. He wasn’t robbed – he was de-cluttered. Public Health conducted a week-long investigation at 200 Wellesley in late September. When inspectors revealed that a number of units were over-packed with “stuff,” Toronto Community Housing cleared out excess things from approximately 20 apartments.

Martin stood in his living room on the seventh floor last Thursday and tried to list his missing possessions. Eight industrial-sized garbage bags contained his clothes. They heaped up around him on the floor and over his couch. “My computer keyboard’s been taken.” He added, “A power bar, a hard drive, a Blackberry. The patio furniture. Everything’s been taken from the balcony.”

Nearly all of his stuff has been rearranged. He said it’s difficult to figure out what’s been bagged, boxed or misplaced, and what’s simply not there. Toronto Community Housing supplied him with no record of what was removed. Martin says he has a lot of stuff, “but I’m not a hoarder.”

Hoarding has leapt to the top of Community Housing’s priority issues list after fires broke out in two of its apartment buildings in less than a month. The Wellesley fire on Sept. 24 displaced over 1200 tenants for a week at least, and a minor blaze charred an apartment at Victoria Park Ave. and O’Connor Dr. on Oct. 6. Firefighters said excessive clutter blocked their entry and slowed their progress in both instances.

“Hoarding is what caused the [Sept. 24] fire,” Dan King, a board director for Community Housing told tenants on Sunday. “We do think that. And we want everyone to know that we’re doing everything we can to address and fix that issue as soon as possible.” As he spoke, Porta-Mini Storage was moving five shipping containers full of 20 apartments’ excess possessions from 200 Wellesley to a semi-permanent compound between 155 Sherbourne and 275 Shuter Sts. Community Housing wouldn’t comment on how long it expected the plywood pen to remain in place or why the containers were moved to Moss Park in the first place.

Jeff Lee, sales director at Porta-Mini, said the containers are mostly for storage. “They’re not really for moving stuff around,” he said. “They don’t travel well when they’re full.”  Community Housing has leased the pods on a month-to-month basis but Lee doesn’t know whether it will renew the rental for November.

A Community Housing worker at 275 Shuter St., who wished to remain anonymous, thinks a hoarding crackdown in his building is unlikely. “Hoarding has never been a problem here.” As he said this, a woman walked off the elevator pushing a shopping cart overflowing with teddy bears. “She’s not a hoarder,” he said.

Meanwhile, hoarders from 200 Wellesley who want their stuff back must first meet with the building’s Operating Unit Manager, Nancy Evans, and a case worker from Community Resources Connections Toronto (CRCT). Evans, in an email to Martin, said the caseworkers help hoarders sift through their things and discard unnecessary clutter. She didn’t mention what long-term counseling options are open to tenants accused of hoarding, and Community Housing refused to comment.

According to Reg Ayre, manager of healthy environments at Toronto Public Health, “a person with a lot of stuff doesn’t necessarily mean a hoarder. We’re looking for clutter which creates unsanitary conditions.” Then, he says, “for a first-time offender, we issue a notice giving the tenant between seven days and a month to clean out their unit.” He says Public Health provides housekeeping supports, social service workers, and medications to curb hoarding habits. They don’t just take away the stuff.

Martin says he wasn’t given time or notice to clear out his apartment on his own or with a caseworker. “I don’t care about the stuff,” he said. “I care about the invasion of privacy.” He has never been warned about the conditions in his apartment before. “I don’t have bed bugs or cockroaches or mice,” he said. Before the fire, he kept a weekly housekeeper.

Elaine Birchall, a hoarding interventionist based in Ottawa, writes on her website, Hoarding.ca, that she confronts hoarders directly, rather than clearing out a home or apartment on her own. She concedes in an email, though, “’shovel-outs’ are traumatic but sometimes necessary.”

Rocky Earle agrees. He just recovered from a bout of pneumonia caused by smoke inhalation during the fire. His balcony on the 29th floor sits directly over 2424, where the fire started. He says, “Now, the hoarders have to be dealt with. It’s not possible to be too hard on them.”



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