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Fighting to remain engulfed in junk

These days, the newly reconstituted hoarding task force in Arlington, Va., says, public safety has to trump civil rights when it comes to keeping homes clean.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Sam Shipkovitz came home late one evening to the swank Waterford House high-rise condominium building on Crystal Drive, where he'd lived for eight years, to find the door to his unit bolted shut. A bright yellow fire marshal's condemnation placard was fastened over the peephole: "Unfit for Human Habitation."

That was in October. He hasn't lived there since.

Four days after he was locked out of Unit 314, Shipkovitz filed suit against Arlington County officials in federal court claiming that the eviction violated his civil rights. It was among the first suits of its kind. "So I have five printers. . . . So I have piles of books, piles of newspapers," Shipkovitz said. "This is America. There's no such thing as the neatness police."

But there is a newly reconstituted hoarding task force in Arlington. And in an increasingly dense urban environment, officials say, there is simply no room for what may have been overlooked in the past as eccentric collecting.

These days, task force members say, public safety has to trump civil rights. The conflict will be decided by the courts, as hoarding task forces become more aggressive and people such as Shipkovitz fight back.

Shipkovitz is a patent attorney, though he works sporadically and has had long periods of unemployment. He also has a doctorate in electrical engineering; his dissertation was titled "Automated Pattern Recognition of Irradiated Chromosomes." He admits that his place was a mess. Yes, he slept on top of his stuff on the floor under a blanket decorated with racing cars. And yes, there were boxes in the bathtub.

How extreme?
But county officials saw something far more extreme.

Only a 15-inch path ran through the two-bedroom condominium Shipkovitz shared with a roommate, county officials wrote in court papers. The rest, from floor to ceiling, was crammed with "rubbish, debris, paper, boxes, bags and all manner of containers."

The closets were jammed with heavy power tools -- Shipkovitz said he used to run a construction business on the side. The bumper of an old Mustang, its steering wheel and one of its bucket seats lay in the living room. Those belonged to his roommate, he said. The kitchen was unusable: The floor and counters were covered with legal documents from one of his cases. "If one were to actually use the stove or oven," the county wrote, "it would certainly [engulf] the unit in flames."

Capt. Tom Polera, Arlington's assistant fire marshal and a member of the task force, is not concerned about neatness. He cares about whether firefighters and paramedics can get into a home such as Shipkovitz's and then, more importantly, get out.

In the past year and a half, Arlington's hoarding task force has dealt with 34 cases. And, according to court documents, it has locked 18 people out of their homes. The properties of 10 suspected hoarders await Polera's inspection.

"There's a fine line between someone's freedom, the whole 'king of your own castle' thing, and when they're jeopardizing the safety of themselves and others," Polera said. "There's no doubt in my mind we would either injure or kill a number of firefighters."

Local officials have been struggling with the issue as they find that compulsive hoarders are everywhere. Hoarding task forces are springing up in increasingly crowded jurisdictions throughout the country.

In New York recently, a man was trapped in his apartment for two days after piles of paper fell on him. In Maryland, a woman's children were taken away because her house was packed. In Arlington last year, officials estimate, five fires were associated with hoarding. And in Alexandria, a hoarder died in 2004 when his cigarette ignited piles of trash.

Shipkovitz lived in a building with 68 units on 18 floors.

"We take a more aggressive approach in multi-family settings," said Rob Dejter, a Montgomery County code enforcement official and part of the county's Working Group on Hoarding. "Someone out on a two-acre parcel is very different from someone in a condominium, rental apartment or townhouse who has rotting meat, roaches, organic waste, mice, rats and bacteria that can become airborne."

The hoarders found by the task forces include lawyers, doctors, professors, government officials. They feel compelled to acquire stuff and are unable to organize it and incapable of throwing anything away.

Though researchers have just begun to study this behavior and its association with mental illness, brain dysfunction and obsessive-compulsive disorders, they estimate that 1.4 million Americans -- and that might be a gross underestimation -- cannot stop themselves.

In the past, hoarders were rarely found out. They were discovered only if someone complained to authorities. The officials who investigated had few options. "All we could do was put people on the street," said Mike Conner, former chief fire marshal in Alexandria.

When Alexandria sheriff's deputies wheeled a wailing 83-year-old hoarder out of her apartment in an office chair in 1997 and dumped her and 40 years' worth of newspapers on the side of the street, Conner figured there had to be a better way. So he enlisted fire and building code inspectors and mental health, geriatric and social workers into a task force.

Once members began sharing information, they discovered that there were far more hoarders than they thought. Then, last year, news broke of Ruth Kneuven, the "cat lady" who hoarded nearly 500 living and dead cats, and hoarding complaints in the Washington region went through the roof.

Shipkovitz, who had moved into his friend Steve Crossan's condominium in December 1996, was turned in by a social worker visiting Crossan who called the fire department.

Most task forces try to work with hoarders, though the help is often refused. So, many hoarders are evicted.

In some instances, task force members give hoarders time to clean up. But in cases in which they deem the danger imminent, such as in Shipkovitz's, they immediately lock the doors, condemn the property, cut the utilities and evict the hoarder. Residents, some of whom decamp to hotels, shelters, friends' houses or their cars, can generally return during daylight hours to dig themselves out. But they cannot sleep there.

Arlington fire inspectors opened the condominium once a week for up to five hours to allow Shipkovitz to clean up. Progress was slow. After six weeks, Crossan's family hired a lawyer, refused to allow Shipkovitz back into the condominium and hired a moving company to haul his things to a storage facility in Fairfax County, where they still sit.

"As long as we see progress, we work with them," said Pat Walker, an Alexandria Fire Department inspector and member of the hoarding task force. "If not, that's when we get firm. Sometimes we have to give them an hour to get out. It's all on a case-by-case basis."

That, legal scholars say, is a problem. Deciding who gets evicted and when is a subjective call. And that could lead to inconsistent enforcement, which is a civil rights violation.

"What constitutes unlawful messiness as opposed to acceptable messiness is very much in the eye of the beholder," said Jonathan Turley, a constitutional law scholar at George Washington University. "If you end up with a Felix Unger inspector, most every college student would be declared a hoarder."

Henry St. John Fitzgerald, former assistant U.S. attorney in Virginia and a friend of Shipkovitz's, is rallying advocates of private property rights to his cause. "Sam Shipkovitz is a hoarder. . . . But that's not the county's business," he said. "Locking him out -- that's government interference."

Fairfax County Supervisor Penelope A. Gross (D-Mason) has pushed the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments to devise a regional hoarding plan. She concedes that lockouts and forced cleanups are intrusive. "This is still evolving," she said. "And it's a whole lot better than leaving it alone like it used to be, where people would die in their hoarding houses because nobody knew."

Shipkovitz's court filings are typed single-space or handwritten on 100 percent recycled paper. In brackets, he writes asides such as "Presently staying in moldy basement apartment -- have to fight cat for a sofa to sleep on."

Crossan lives alone in the cleaned-out condominium, able to sit for the first time in a chair in the living room with a clear view of the pool. "It feels empty," he said.

On a recent balmy evening, during a visit to his storage unit, Shipkovitz passed a Super Dollar Store on Columbia Pike and had to stop. He needed a 25-foot telephone cord. He bought three. And an electric shaver. And reading glasses. And tools. And a jar of pickles.

"Hoarding again," he said.