From within the walls of her two-bedroom Toronto apartment, Yvonne Zilber has produced enough material to fully furnish two houses.
Giving old possessions to family and friends has allowed her to reduce the piles of belongings that once obscured her living room window, but hasn’t meant the retired teacher can dispense with the label she long resisted — hoarder.
Zilber, 67, said the term most often seen in sensational headlines or on reality TV does apply to her, since she lives with a mental illness that compels her to accumulate and hang onto possessions. She said the condition compromises everything from the quality of life at home to her social interactions.
It also applies to countless others with limited means of seeking help, which has prompted a growing number of municipalities to begin establishing resources for residents with the condition.
“If you hear about (hoarding), it’s because maybe somebody had a fire or a neighbour called someone,” Zilber said in an interview. “Nobody talks about hoarding, so people are afraid.”
The stigma around hoarding was one of the factors that prompted the City of Toronto to dedicate $45,000 to the development of a website meant to serve as a resource for those living with the condition.
The site, launched Friday and developed by a coalition known as the Toronto Hoarding Support Services Network, offers information about what hoarding is, self-assessment tools, and links to available support.
“It’s so easy to watch a TV show and draw conclusions about what somebody may be experiencing,” said Dan Breault, Toronto’s Manager of Community Safety and Wellbeing. “The reality surrounding lived experience of hoarding is that it is difficult.”
Breault acknowledges those difficulties are felt by city officials as well. Unlike other mental illnesses, he said, hoarding can make considerable demands on city resources including fire protection, public health and housing.
While the city does not track the overall financial impact of hoarding, Toronto has a team in place that can be called upon to address situations where hoarding is a factor, he said. At the moment, the team is aware of nearly 200 such cases.
Vancouver has adopted a similar approach, employing two fire protection workers and two health professionals on its Hoarding Action Response Team.
Christiana Bratiotis, an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia’s School of Social work who researches community responses to hoarding, said the two cities are part of a growing trend.
Bratiotis said only five North American municipalities were offering supports for hoarders when she began studying the issue in 2004. Today, she said hundreds have allocated public money to tackle an issue she views as both complex and widely misunderstood.
Hoarding has only begun to attract the attention of the mental health community in the past three decades, she said, noting that the condition was not addressed in the American Psychiatric Association’s widely used Diagnostic and Statistical Manual until 2013.
While hoarding as a behaviour has been documented for centuries in sources ranging from 19th century psychiatric literature to Dante’s “Inferno,” Bratiotis said researchers are only now beginning to devote real resources to understanding the nuances of the condition.
“There are things we don’t understand about this problem,” she said. “Things like loneliness or isolation, lack of awareness or insight in this problem … we think they’re both contributing to and a product of hoarding, but the ways in which these things fit, we don’t fully understand.”
Lack of information played a role in Zilber’s long road to diagnosis and treatment.
She said she resisted being classified as a hoarder for years while she continued to accumulate possessions and agreed to get rid of them only when she could give them away to homes or projects where she felt they would be properly valued.
She credits her daughter with opening her eyes to her condition and helping her connect with a treatment program, but said she continues to struggle with the issue daily.
“As a person who is a hoarder, it’s ongoing,” she said, calling on researchers and governments alike to continue addressing the condition. “It’s like being a diabetic — you have to control it … With hoarding, people need ongoing therapy.”