WARWICK, R.I. — A new program in Kent County is working to prevent evictions among those with hoarding disabilities, which can often lead to homelessness.
The Hoarding Intervention Response and Evaluation program, also known as HIRE, is centered at Westbay Community Action. The program identifies and provides services to people at risk for hoarding behavior, or who are already engaging in hoarding behavior, before the situation escalates and causes longterm health and safety hazards.
Sarah Lopatka, the chief programs officer at Westbay, said the situation is common among seniors in subsidized housing.
Q: How can hoarding disorders lead to homelessness?
Lopatka: When I first started at Westbay, I saw how the issue was more prevalent in seniors who were 65 and older and living in subsidized housing, which requires a voucher. They would regularly have inspections, and if the resident service coordinator schedules one and you get a violation, there’s only so many warnings you can get before you’re evicted.
The issue, especially in Rhode Island, is once you have an eviction on your record, it stays with you. I often tell people that evictions are equivalent to a felony, but for housing. You won’t be able to get subsidized housing after that. For the elderly, on a fixed income, that’s concerning. There’s a reason they are there, and it’s because they can’t afford any other apartment or home that’s on the market.
How are you hearing about prospective clients, and then what are the next steps?
We primarily receive referrals from the state’s Office of Healthy Aging about a vulnerable individual. After our initial assessment, we have to ensure that they are fully consenting to this process. It’s an emotional process, and it can’t be a forceful cleanup. We’ve heard of horrible situations where someone was forced to go through a cleanup where they weren’t involved and then committed suicide. It’s why we have a mental health advocate involved from start to finish.
What happens after a client agrees to go through the program?
We start with the bulk of the junk removal. For the things clients don’t want to part with, we try to coordinate some sort of storage. We have everything sanitized by an external sanitation company before a house cleaning service comes in. That’s when the client can move back in.
Are there post-program check-ins?
We’ll continue checking in with the client and the housing authority for a year or more to ensure that we really did overturn the eviction.
Does everyone who is referred want to go through a “cleanup?”
We get about 15 to 20 referrals per month. If we’re lucky, about two or three people accept the services. It’s a tough population, there’s mental health issues, and we can’t force anyone to go through with it.
How much does this program cost per client?
We pay a minimum cost of $2,000 to $3,000 per client. Most often, it’s closer to $4,000 due to the severity of the unit. Sometimes we have to call pest control or services to take care of mold and mildew.
If inspections are supposed to take place regularly in housing authorities, how can a unit get so out of control?
We’ve often found that at some housing authorities, a resident service coordinator is not doing the minimum six month inspections. So eight years will go by and this hoarding situation becomes dire.
Blue Cross Blue Shield of Rhode Island recently provided a grant to the HIRE program. How will it help you expand?
We started the HIRE program with seniors in subsidized units. But especially after COVID-19, we’re seeing evictions and homelessness everywhere and across all age spectrums. We’ve even had schools reach out to us and say that families are potentially facing eviction.
Right now, we’re seeing so many evictions in Rhode Island. And there’s not much out there: we’re in the middle of a serious housing shortage. So we thought how we could allow the most vulnerable to sustain their housing and started HIRE.
How severe can hoarding disorders be?
For a visual, these clients can be on the extreme end. Sometimes there are boxes that go up to the ceilings. I’ve had to jump over piles, shimmy sideways because I can’t even walk forward, and navigate all of this stuff that is likely surrounding heating elements and a big hazard.
We have an assessment that places a home on a hoarding spectrum because there’s a big difference between clutter and hoarding. Hoarding is best explained in the “iceberg” effect. When you walk into a home and you see what you think is the worst, that’s just the tip. We’re not even seeing everything that has led up to that. Hoarding can be multifaceted, there’s mental health issues involved, and hoarding tendencies can begin cropping up 15 to 20 years before we even intervene.
Have you seen similar eviction diversion programs elsewhere?
In Massachusetts, some cities and towns have identified the link between hoarding and homelessness as an issue and worked something into their city budgets where it has its own line item. That would make such a big difference here.
The Boston Globe’s weekly Ocean State Innovators column features a Q&A with Rhode Island innovators who are starting new businesses and nonprofits, conducting groundbreaking research, and reshaping the state’s economy. Send tips and suggestions to reporter Alexa Gagosz at email@example.com.