Comment: Neighbours of hoarders live in constant anxiety over fire hazard, but what can be done?

The risk of loss of life and property is real.

Abel Ang | September 04, 2022, 09:47 AM

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COMMENTARY: "The level of anxiety of the neighbours waxes and wanes, depending on the frequency of hoarding related fires that appear in the news. This makes it difficult for them to relax and enjoy their homes."

Our contributor Abel Ang shares his thoughts on the issue of hoarding in HDB flats and how neighbours of hoarders live in a state of constant anxiety, and asks whether more can be done for their peace of mind.

Every apartment estate has someone like that. An individual, or family, which picks over the garbage bins in search of items to be salvaged. The salvaged items are collected and brought into homes already stuffed full of junk.

Link between hoarding and mental illness

According to a Singapore Medical Journal (SMJ) article by Ng Beng Yeong, a consultant psychiatrist at Mount Elizabeth Hospital, and his team, “hoarding refers to an excessive acquisition of objects and inability to part with apparently valueless possessions.”

The article explains that hoarding can be a byproduct of psychiatric disorders, like obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, or dementia, and the list is not exhaustive. The range of possible mental health root causes makes hoarding challenging to treat.

Although there is a link between hoarding and mental illness, not all hoarding behaviour is due to mental illness. To make matters worse, hoarders are unlikely to seek help because they probably do not see their hoarding behaviour as a problem, the SMJ article adds.

The hoarding issue is highly relevant given a recent spate of fires in Housing Development Board (HDB) flats of suspected hoarders.

Hoarding fires and size of the problem

An Aljunied flat fire in the middle of August was sparked by an unattended candle and spread across the flat, leading to 13 residents being evacuated from units in the vicinity.

In the aftermath of the incident, the flat was found to be stuffed full of bags and clothes reaching up to the windows. There were many spare home appliances, such as radio and fans, and stacks of newspapers.

According to media reports, in the clean-up after the fire, 14 large rubbish bins were filled and loaded with burnt items from the flat!

Neighbours who helped clear the burnt debris in the charred flat said it was infested with cockroaches.

Earlier in that same week, a blaze in a Jurong East flat claimed its resident’s life. While the fire was put out by firefighters, it rekindled the next day, reignited by deep-seated embers in the rubble.

Kumar, a neighbour who spoke to The Straits Times (ST), said the unit’s residents would collect plastic bottles, cans, shoes, and old clothes, piled up in plastic bags. The stench from the unit was described as smelling like “rotten food” and “really suffocating.”

Living next to a hoarding neighbour had been torture for Kumar. He reported that he dreaded going home because of the hoarded items in the common corridor, and the stench emanating from the apartment. He has been unable to sell his unit because of his neighbours.

Kumar had apparently made numerous attempts, even sending close to a hundred e-mails to the authorities, to get help for his neighbours over the years. He felt that not enough had been done to make sure that the hoarding would stop.

The unfortunate hoarding fire in Jurong East was so large that it spread beyond the flat, building up into a wall of fire so high that it licked the ceiling outside the unit.

In the aftermath of the rekindled fire in Jurong East, the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) announced that it is re-evaluating its measures required for fires involving clutter in homes.

Beyond rekindling of fires, perhaps there is opportunity for the SCDF to review how it is dealing with the hoarding issue as a whole – especially as it relates to fire safety.

Ng writes in SMJ that since “over 80 per cent of Singapore’s resident population lives in dense public housing, both the individual and the community could face loss of life and property due to the fire risk created by hoarding.”

His article also points out that roughly two out of every hundred people in Singapore will display hoarding symptoms.

With a population size of 5.8 million people, that works out to more than 100,000 hoarders across the whole of Singapore, many of whom live in dense public housing. The risks of loss of life and property are real, as we have seen from the multiple hoarding-related fires in August.

Living with a hoarder

I too live in a Housing Board estate with a resident hoarder. She roams the floors of our blocks every night between 1am to 5am, while the estate is asleep, looking for discarded items left in the common corridor by neighbours.

During those hours, she can be found rummaging through the garbage and recycling cans in the neighbourhood, looking for salvageable items. She is usually unkempt and disheveled in appearance with unwashed hair tied up above the head.

She is generally not a nuisance and mostly keeps to herself. She avoids any form of contact with neighbours, and will leave the elevator when you step in. Her apartment smells, because of the years of trash that has accumulated in it.

Some neighbours have tried to help her, but I understand that any form of help has been declined.

She does sell items to the rag and bone man from time to time, which seems to be her main source of income.

Her immediate neighbours are at their wits' end, living in constant risk of the potential fire safety and public health consequences which stem from being in the vicinity of acute hoarding.

The level of anxiety of the neighbours waxes and wanes, depending on the frequency of hoarding related fires that appear in the news. This makes it difficult for them to relax and enjoy their homes.

What can be done?

The solution to the issue is not an easy one. As the Ministry of National Development (MND) outlined in its response to Member of Parliament Liang Eng Hwa’s question on hoarding: “The process to fully resolve a hoarding issue can be long-drawn and is highly dependent on the hoarder’s willingness and ability to change his or her behavior.”

MND also added that a Hoarding Management Framework has been developed which “guides officers across agencies in providing coordinated support to address the hoarding issue.”

In the aftermath of the recent fires, Liang told ST that “the state of hoarding in some of the HDB flats remains very serious.” He has called for a review of current measures and asked the authorities to look into new measures to ensure fire safety.

Some questions that MND’s review could consider include:

  1. Should there be public consultation on the Framework, in light of how extensive the issue is in urban Singapore?
  2. Is it possible to be more transparent about the Hoarding Management Framework? While there are several references to the Framework in addressing questions on how the authorities are managing the issue, the Framework itself does not appear to have been published.
  3. How does the Framework benchmark against other dense cities around the world, especially metropolitan cities that have had to manage hoarders and the risks posed to the larger community?
  4. How are neighbours, who have been affected by hoarding, informed about the progress that agencies are making in dealing with the hoarding issue?
  5. How many people has the Framework helped in the years since it was launched?

Neighbours would benefit from more transparency

With up to 100,000 hoarders spread across our dense apartment metropolis, there are hundreds of thousands of affected neighbours who are at risk from a fire safety or even a public health perspective.

Is it possible to avoid another repeat of Kumar’s torturous experience, where he sent close to a hundred emails, and continuously appealed to the authorities to intervene, over the length of a decade, only to wake up one morning to the possibility that his life “would end there"?

Lives have been lost to hoarding, as evidenced by the Jurong East fire which claimed the life of the flat’s resident. In addition, more than a dozen neighbours had been put at risk and needed to be evacuated due to the fires in Aljunied and Jurong East.

Neighbours of hoarders would benefit from more transparency on how the framework is being used to address their concerns, in order to feel reassured that the issue is being properly handled.

Ultimately, everyone should have a chance to reside in liveable, safe, and clean surroundings – both hoarders and their neighbours too.

Top image via SCDF on Facebook