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Exhibit at Pitt aims to raise public awareness of hoarding

| Sunday, March 25, 2012

They horrify and amuse reality show viewers, perplex even the best psychologists and are probably a firefighters' worst nightmare.

"Hoarders are not well understood, even by professionals. They have a very difficult time throwing anything away, and it gets worse with age," said Mary Brodland, a graduate student in social work at the University of Pittsburgh.

Brodland is one of several Pitt social work graduates who organized this weekend's free public art exhibition "Canvassing Clutter." It's on display at the school today and features work by more than 20 artists.

The exhibit aims to raise public awareness of hoarding. To an extent, that's already happened in recent years thanks to cable television shows like "Hoarders" and "Buried Alive," which display hoarding at its most gaudy and compulsive.

Some cases of hoarding are legendary. In 1947, brothers Homer and Langley Collyer of New York were found dead in their Fifth Avenue mansion amid 130 tons of trash that included 14 pianos, 25,000 books, decades of newspapers and the chassis of a Model T Ford.

Compulsive hoarding is dangerous yet little understood, said Keith Brown, assistant director of mental health services at Cleveland's Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging and a member of the Hoarding Connection of Cuyahoga County, one of the country's 90 hoarding task forces.

"Hoarding is a mental health issue. It causes health and safety problems. Often, hoarders have had utilities cut off because they have misplaced bills or do not have money," he said.

Hoarding will be included in the 2013 edition of "The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders," published by the American Psychiatric Association.

Between 3 percent and 5 percent of the U.S. population has severe hoarding problems, Brown said. "There are different levels of hoarding, different varieties. Some types, like hoarding animals or spoiled food, can cause biohazards," he said.

Hoarding presents a particular danger to firefighters, said Pittsburgh Deputy Fire Chief Frank Large, a firefighter for 32 years.

"You go into a burning house and discover that rooms are packed from floor to ceiling. That's scary for a couple of reasons. These materials are unsteady and could collapse. Tons of hoarded materials also make it easier for a floor to collapse. It's also hard to even know how to get into a hoarder's house," Large said.

Blocked access at the home of a Crafton Heights man turned tragic a year ago.

John G. Rabusseau, 77, could not get to his home's front door, Touchstone said. It appeared he was trying to escape his burning home when he was overcome with smoke, firefighters said.

Neighbors, who said Rabusseau's home was cluttered with cans, pizza boxes and newspapers, and firefighters spent more than 10 minutes just figuring out how to enter Rabusseau's home.

"Once you are inside a place like that, it's difficult to move around in that environment. There's smoke. You can't see, and that makes it complicated to walk through debris," Large said.

Canvassing Clutter will continue from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. today in Posvar Hall, 230 S. Bouquet St., Oakland.

Additional Information:

To learn more

Information about causes and treatment of hoarding is available from the Clutterers Anonymous helpline at 866-675-4912.

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