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According to Inspector Peggy DeLean of the Fairfax County Department of Code Compliance, hoarders have been around since the 14th century.

“The first historical literary reference that we know of is in Dante’s Divine Comedy,” she told an audience assembled at the Herndon Police Department on Wednesday. “Fast forward to 1947, when in New York’s Harlem, police were called to a home belonging to two brothers named Collier because of a horrible smell,” she said. “Inside, they found both brothers dead. It took two hours to find the first one, and a week to find the second one, because of all the accumulated trash. Still to this day, some NYPD refer to a hoarder home as a ‘Collier house’.”

DeLean and Nancy Stallings, both inspectors with the county department that addresses hoarding complaints, hosted a presentation sponsored by the Herndon Police Crime Prevention Council on the dangers of hoarding.

“A lot of complaints come from fire and rescue workers who get called to a home and are impeded from doing their job because of all the accumulated debris,” DeLean said. “But sometimes there will be no outward sign that a home belongs to a hoarder until you go inside. They will bathe everyday, and get dressed and go to work, and keep the outside of their homes presentable so you really would never know by looking at them. In one case that I recall, we were called to the home of a government contractor who had a top secret clearance, and he did not want anyone to know.”

DeLean said hoarding was officially declared a mental disorder and certified as a disability in May, 2013 by the American Psychiatric Association. “We are still dealing with the ramifications of that designation in terms of privacy and how it relates to the Americans with Disabilities Act,” she said. “But for now our records are all still public.”

Formed in 2010, the Fairfax County department of Code Compliance is comprised of building inspectors, zoning inspectors, fire marshals and health officials.

“With this cross-certified team, we can immediately address basically any violation we encounter and we don’t have to send anyone else into the home, or go back into it ourselves a second or third time,” she said.

DeLean said that when inspectors find a hoarder property in noncompliance, they write up violations and give owners a reasonable deadline to address them. If they remain noncompliant, their case is either referred to the Fairfax County General District or Circuit Court. She said the department receives somewhere between 300 to 400 complaints a year, on average.

“Not all of those require action,” she said. “But of course there are also the extreme cases. Extreme hoarding cases are those in which the hoarding creates dangerous living conditions for the residents, or emergency workers who may have to enter the home.”

DeLean cited cases in which piles of trash in homes were five to six feet tall throughout a home, preventing the residents from going up stairs or even entering certain rooms. “We had one case in which a woman said she had not been into her kitchen in at least five years because she couldn’t get into it,” she said. “What we often discover in cases like that is that there are water leaks or even gas leaks that have not been addressed for years, causing all sorts of health hazards.”

Stallings added that “animal hoarding” is another prominent health-related issue.

“In Fairfax County there is no limit to how many cats a resident can own, but they have to be able to take care of them and not cause health hazards to the cats or themselves. Of course, often that is not the case. We have seen homes with 80 or more cats with feces all over the place, and ammonia so strong that it actually was visible on the insides of the windows,” she said. In one case, one woman had put cats that had died into her freezer, each one bagged and tagged with their names.”

DeLean said that any Fairfax County resident suspecting a hoarding situation in their neighborhood, or even within their own family, can contact the Fairfax County Department of Code Compliance at 703-324-1300.

gmacdonald@fairfaxtimes.com