Hoarding in the D.C. area causes physical danger, public health issues

Hoarding cases like this one in Arlington cause a public health threat, officials say. (Photo: Arlington County Department of Human Services)

Officials in counties throughout the D.C. area are combating a problem that not only causes physical and mental strife from those who suffer from it, but also a major hazard for people who live around and near it.

Obsessive-compulsive hoarding is characterized by doctors as an "intense, emotional attachment" to items that others may see as trash or an impulse to keep things for extended periods of time because, at some point, they may have a use.

PHOTOS: What is hoarding? Check out hoarding cases from Arlington, Fairfax and Montgomery counties

That can, in some extreme cases, lead to houses, backyards and garages filled with clutter and garbage that's not only an eyesore, it can create a major health or fire damage. Several agencies in the Washington area tell 7 on your Side that they're struggling to keep up with the soaring numbers of cases that put hoarders and their neighbors in danger.

In one case, a quiet Aspen Hill neighborhood was rocked when a hoarder's home went up in flames.

Sandra Vidas, a 67-year-old woman who lived there, was trapped in her bedroom when the fire broke out, and rescuers struggled mightily to get her out because the house was so clogged with clutter. Firefighters couldn't even push their way in.

"I often said that if that house caught fire, it's going to go up like a tinderbox," neighbor Bill Fisher said. "You could see stuff stacked up in the windows."

Vidas couldn't be saved. By the time first responders were able to cut out a window and pull her out, it was too late. Firefighters later told Fisher that Vidas' situation was a textbook example of hoarding.

Meanwhile, three months have passed, and the debris from the disaster still sits outside, rotting and molding.

"A problem for everyone"

Bonnie Klem, who serves on the Montgomery County hoarding task force, says that not only is obsessive-compulsive hoarding a fire danger, it's a serious threat to public health.

"It's a big problem for everyone who lives around hoarders," Klem says."The rats and the vermin and the maggots and everything...and then they go to other neighbors."

Officials say that hoarding cases in the area are rising, and experts contend that it often happens to people as they age. In one instance, a task force in Fairfax County was forced to wear head-to-toe protective gear as they maneuvered through a massive mess at one home.

In that case, boxes and bags were boxed to the ceiling. And it's not limited to Montgomery and Fairfax counties. Arlington County also has responded to hoarding cases recently, 41 dead animals were found in a Columbia home a few weeks ago and, in D.C., a cleared-out hoarder's home sent a mess stretching for blocks.

A costly cleanup

Given the tight budgets of local government's these days, most cities say they just don't have the money to attack hoarding as a public health threat. For most, the cleanup, which can run to as much as $30,000 per home, is just too expensive.

That leaves neighbors, like the ones in Aspen Hill, wondering if even after years of complaints, this deadly mess will ever be cleaned up.

Montgomery County code enforcement officials tell ABC7 News that they've ordered relatives of Vidas to clear the debris from her Aspen Hill home or face fines.