Hoarders Anonymous: Who's Living Next to You

Reporter: Dhomonique Ricks l Videographer: Ira Quillen

Lynchburg, VA - Do you know who is living next door to you? There have been shocking revelations into hoarding in Lynchburg. The special report "Hoarders Anonymous" takes a look at a big problem that's plaguing our area.

There is no particular "look" to a hoarder. They look just like you and me in most cases. The problem? They have a hard time parting ways with items they own.

"You always think you've seen the worst one and you haven't," said Wayne Craig, a Lynchburg property maintenance official.

In his 10 years working for the city, Craig has seen it all.

"We do have more than I thought we'd have in Lynchburg," Craig said. "I would say a good 30, 35 cases."

"We see hoarding all the time," said Ted Campbell, a Lynchburg Social Services Social Work supervisor. "Dozens of severe cases."

Cases like the one on Richland Drive seen first on ABC 13, where crews removed close to 20 dumpsters-full and 60,000 pounds of memories.

"The one on Richland Drive actually wasn't bad," Craig said. "We do have other houses around that are just as bad, or worse."

Campbell works with hoarders.

"That's our primary concern is their safety," Campbell said. "We look to see if they're in need of protective services."

He and his staff write referrals to healthcare professionals as well as council victims. But even though all these options are on the table, hoarders have the right to deny services.

"We have to respect their rights and these are rights that we deserve as citizens in the United States," Campbell said.

So what is hoarding? Psychologist Dr. Wayne Sloop explains.

"It's usually been placed under, obsessive compulsive disorder," Sloop said.

In most cases, it is a person who packs their home so full, it is unsafe. He makes it clear it is not a disease, rather a condition.

"Most compulsive hoarders don't have a good awareness of their problem," Sloop said.

It's not clear what causes it.

"Many hoarders have a history of abuse or deprivation," Sloop said. "There's some kind of discomfort or distress engendered when the individual faces the prospect of discarding something."

These are items Campbell says hold deep sentimental value to them.

"Often times, people on the outside don't understand how grave a situation this is for their well-being," Campbell said.

All three of our hoarding experts say anyone can be a hoarder, although most of the chronic hoarders they work with are elderly. And they are harder to recognize than one may think.

"They're in middle class neighborhoods most of the time," Craig said.

He says right now, the city is looking into eight cases in the Hill City.

"In the 10 years I've been here, there's not been much I haven't seen," Craig said.

Craig was generous enough to take ABC 13 to some of the condemned properties.

"The plumbing has quit. They have no electricity or no running water," Craig said. "Plus the cats had actually filled the bathtub with their feces."

These are all examples of some of the hoarding cases Craig has encountered while working with the City of Lynchburg.

Our journey did not allow us to step inside any of the homes because they are still private property. The first stop was on Ashbourne Drive; a home condemned since 2007.

"When we get a condemned property like this, we'll drive out and make sure it's secure. Make sure it's still placarded, making sure nobody's busted in it," Craig said.

Sure enough, a few seconds later...

"Somebody's been going in and out, I got to contact the owner," Craig said. "The window's broken out. This is unusual for this particular property."

Craig snapped some evidence, put another placard on the front door, made some notes, and was on his way.

"You show what needs to be done. Pictures are worth a 1,000 words," Craig said. "The gutters need to be cleaned, they need to secure the windows. It's their property. Just because it's condemned doesn't mean we're responsible for keeping it secure."

The next stop was Nottingham Circle. This home has been condemned since 2008.

"When we first got this one, we didn't even really know that there was a house here," Craig said. "You'd just drive down the road and never know there was a house there. You couldn't even see the house. This all was overgrown so bad," said Craig.

Inside, items piled up room after room.

Our last stop brought us to a house, sectioned off into apartments off of VES Road.

"To look at it from the outside, you would never know," Craig said. "It can be apartments, it can be houses, it doesn't matter."

Craig says the city condemned this apartment about a year ago after the owner passed away. As we made our way around the corner, something caught our attention: an open door.

"Hello?" Craig asked. "Who's here?"

"Barry," a voice responded from inside the apartment.

Turns out Barry is a maintenance employee cleaning out the unit.

So how long can a property stay condemned before the owners are forced to clean it out?

"It can stay condemned like that as long as the outside meets code," Craig said.

Meaning as long as the outside is well manicured, the home can stay the way it is forever. Of the three homes we stopped by, all were previously occupied by elderly people. Sloop says hoarding usually begins in early adulthood.

"But it doesn't usually get worse until the person is 40, 45 maybe 50 years old. It gets worse later in life," Sloop said.

He says many hoarders grew up in an era like the Great Depression and tend to hold on to things. Experts say many people are quick to judge but do not realize many hoarders have no control over their situation.

Craig says it is important to point out the city does not just throw people out on the street; they do try to help them get connected with social services that can further assist them. As for homes being condemned for years, the reason behind that is different for different people. Sometimes the owners have passed away, maybe the family lives out of state, or they may not have the money to fix it.