Ontario firefighter specializes in hoarders

London, Ont., fire inspector James Hind specializes in hoarding. (QMI Agency)

London, Ont., fire inspector James Hind specializes in hoarding. (QMI Agency)

Jennifer O'Brien, The London Free Press

, Last Updated: 5:16 PM ET

LONDON, Ont. ─ He'll never forget his first.

She was a schoolteacher who kept her classroom immaculate ─ everything in its place.

"It was impeccable," recalls London, Ont., fire inspector James Hind. "To see her, you'd never know . . .”

The Woodstock, Ont., woman's home was a different story.

"An absolute disaster," he says. "Two complete households jammed into one, kitchen table on top of another table, a couch pushed against another . . . Boxes and clothing scattered chaotically around."

Unable to let go of her dead parents, the teacher held on to their belongings, stuffing everything they'd collected over the decades ─ furniture, knick-knacks, clothes, paperwork, you name it ─ into her own modest house.

It was overwhelming. Stuff. Everywhere.

So she brought more home, adding to the piles until there was nowhere to sit, nowhere to eat, barely anywhere to walk.

Teacher by day. Hoarder by night.

Hind, then with the Woodstock fire department, was fascinated.

He researched and inspected more jam-packed homes ─ considered a danger under the Fire Prevention Act ─ and hoarding became his thing.

Today, he’s a rare expert in an evolving field, who's taken his expertise in dealing with hoarding to firefighters across Ontario.

He's opened 312 hoarding cases in London since 2009. He's also been working to educate other groups ─ including the police, child-welfare agency, home care organizations and landlords ─ on the complexities of what may, at first glance, simply seem to be a big mess.

"I had a lady once who saved every maxi pad she ever used," says Hind from his cubicle desk at the fire department's headquarters. His computer contains thousands of pictures, documenting hundreds of hoarder homes across the city.

In one photo, there is the mountain of sanitary napkins.

Re-wrapped in what appear to be their original pale pink plastic packaging, the pile of pads, boxes, papers and other debris ─ towers over the furniture.

"There's no possible way you can wrap your head around it," says Hind. "You can't understand the thought process. People are overwhelmed, sitting in a room full of stuff. It's like an addiction. It's unbelievable."

He describes some of what he's seen since stepping foot into that Woodstock school teacher's home a decade ago:

-- 500 plastic clamshell containers, scattered alongside yogurt cups, pop cans, spilled food, rodent droppings, feces-covered clothing, picture frames, piles of newspapers on top of boxes, on top of furniture.

-- People sleeping in tiny clearings they've carved out for themselves between junk piles on hallway and living room floors, their beds overloaded with boxes, bags and other furniture.

-- Rubbish piled so high in one place, the occupant was able to hid from fire inspectors -- not once, but twice

-- 78 live cats found in a bedroom, 14 dead cats in another.

Last December, hoarding was listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as a psychiatric condition. Hind and others who work with hoarders are holding their breath to see how that will affect health care and landlord-tenant laws.

"The hoarding disorder diagnosis can have ramifications for property managers. I think they have an obligation to try to help before forcing people out of their homes," says Kim Tremblay a case worker who runs a "clearing clutter" support group and is trying to form a hoarding task force in London.

"We'd like to get more interest from people in the mental health system, since hoarding is now a category," she adds.

Currently, under Ontario law, a tenant can be evicted if something they do interferes with the safety of others. They can also be removed, under a fire-protection law, if there's an immediate threat to life. Piles of rubbish are considered a danger because they make fires burn hotter and smoke denser. They can collapse or block emergency exits.

But eviction won't solve the problem, nor will fines, says Hind, who stopped doing so-called forced cleanups years ago.

"They fail 100% of the time," he says. "Within six months they'll have acquired as much or more (stuff)."

His push to get community groups working with fire departments to address hoarding in a more holistic way caught the attention of Mercedes Sturges, conference manager for the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs.

After a rash of fires, including a devastating 2010 blaze in a Toronto hoarding apartment, Sturges said she sought out firefighters with expertise.

She lined up a psychiatrist and other speakers but it took her two months to find a firefighter who specialized in hoarding.

"(Hind) was actually trying to do something about it and his big message was that fire services can't do it alone," she says. "He was the only one building a protocol for his department in dealing with hoarding."

jennifer.obrien@sunmedia.ca

Twitter: @obrienatlfpress


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