There’s a dirty secret in neighborhoods all across the United States, giving Inspector Darren Johnson an unusual beat.
He’s part of a special hoarding team at California’s Orange County Fire Department.
“There was some flies in the window,” he said during a ride-along with ABC News. “There was a distinct smell coming from the unit.”
Instead of eviction, however, the Orange County team uses a new tactic – compassion – to teach hoarders how to pull themselves out of their mess and to offer help.
The strategy was a welcome approach for a retired Orange County psychiatrist who asked ABC News not to use his name. He said he didn’t consider himself a hoarder and that his mess had stemmed from a depression triggered by a breakup.
“This is very atypical for me,” the psychiatrist said. “This happens only under circumstances where I’m living alone for extended periods. … I’ve always been together all my life with a really good woman who I was married to and lived with. This happens when I am alone. When I am not alone, this never happens. Never ever.”
Teams like the one in Orange County are springing up across the country to address the growing problem. Hoarding affects an estimated 2 percent to 5 percent of the population, according to the American Psychological Association. Long considered a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder, it was reclassified this year as a unique psychiatric condition.
The health hazards and potential for fires pose a risk to the people who live in hoarder homes as well as their neighbors.
“Hoarding can affect anyone,” said Dr. Robin Barnett, a psychotherapist in New Jersey who has treated more than 20 hoarders in the past 20 years. “It crosses all socioeconomic lines.”
In Orange County, Johnson could order the psychiatrist to move out in 30 days or clean up but his style is to use gentle nudges, helping residents out of their mess.
He told ABC News that a good part of his job was to counsel the hoarders he encountered. He called in a cleanup crew to remove countless loads of trash from the psychiatrist’s home. He and his team also taught the psychiatrist about cleaning.
Afterward, the psychiatrist was finally able to see his living room floor, which he said he hadn’t seen in a year and a half. “It feels good,” he said.
Since the Orange County team came to his home, however, the psychiatrist is still dealing with cleanup issues.
ABC News’ Harry Phillips contributed to this piece.