GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — It is a scenario first responders have experienced time and time again: Firefighters have to plow through mounds of items, often creating narrow and highly combustible rows inside a burning house, just to get to the flames.
“It’s very hard to maneuver through what I’ll call a goat path where you have boxes that may be cardboard, may be plastic,” Grand Rapids Fire Department GRFD Lt. William Smith said.
It’s a dangerous situation for firefighters and anyone who may be trapped.
“If we have those situations where everything’s dark, everything’s hot, having an effective rescue is going to be very difficult,” Smith said.
Cases like that prompted Grand Rapids and surrounding communities to form an area Hoarding Task Force in 2015.
Hoarding is considered a mental illness. It’s estimated that about 4% of the population nationwide, including people from all walks of life, suffers from the disorder.
The old way of dealing with the problem — citing the resident for code violations — wasn’t working.
“You take say an elderly person to jail for a housing violation. They (the jail) can’t fix mental health issues,” Grand Rapids police Officer Jeremy Huffman, a member of the Hoarding Task Force, said.
The job of the task force is to raise public awareness and widen education. Members from a number of agencies provide early intervention and coordinate resources to create long-term solutions. They also communicate collaborate on the status of open cases.
“By doing so, we’re able to get these individuals help, but also get them into living conditions that get the minimal safe standards,” Grand Rapids Code Compliance Manager Eric Jordan said.
In the four years since it was formed, the results of the task force have been promising, though getting residents to a place where they can live safely can be a long process.
“Maybe 60% of our cases get into better living conditions. Some, it’s a long-term issue or condition and so it takes a long time to turn people around,” Jordan said.
If you need help with a hoarding problem, you can call the city at 616. 456.3460 or 311. You can also email the task force at firstname.lastname@example.org.