I’ll call her “Flora.” The neighborhood kids called her “the witch of Burns Park.”

She had inherited her gracious home from her father, a distinguished U-M professor. She drove around town in an old red pickup truck collecting junk, including broken bikes, which piled up in her yard. Bags of stuff disappeared inside. Former city attorney Bruce Laidlaw recalls that “on trash days, she would be seen going from can to can to collect stuff. … When asked why, she said it was to give to the St. Vincent de Paul Society.”

As neighbors’ complaints mounted, Laidlaw says, his assistant helped Flora haul away boxes of stuff. But “then she began collecting it again.” Finally, in 1994, the city did a major intervention, sending police officers and firefighters to the house along with social worker Tom Fournier, who’d been appointed Flora’s temporary guardian. The house was so full of junk, Fournier recalls, that they couldn’t get in the front door, so “the fire department ran a ladder up to the second floor.” (He later found that Flora had been using a “hidden door” in back.) Fournier followed the firefighters up the ladder. Inside, he eased past walls of stuff, some of it piled on top of “beautiful, top-quality old furniture.”

Flora’s situation was eventually resolved when her brother, who lived out of state, agreed to take legal responsibility for her. The house sold, Flora was moved to an apartment, and the Burns Park “witch” disappeared from the neighborhood.

Today, the wide-eyed kids would be more likely to label their troubled neighbor a “hoarder.” Had Flora lived in the age of reality TV, she might have been featured on “Hoarders,” or “Hoarding: Buried Alive.” The shows’ cameras zoom in on haunted-eyed individuals in can-you-believe-it residences as they struggle–often under the threat of eviction–to relinquish objects that, however worthless they appear to others, hold meaning for them. A team of helpers–relatives, therapists, and people with titles like “clutter expert”–spur them on, or try to. Dramatic arcs build as hoarders stand firm, family members quarrel, and the “intervention team” attempts on-the-spot therapy.

“We hate those shows!” says Laurie Lutomski, an administrator at Synod Residential Services and a leader of the Washtenaw County Hoarding Task Force. “They rush in for three days and [make it look as if] they’re going to change people’s lives. They don’t show all the ongoing issues and the anxiety.”

Lutomski helped organize the task force eight years ago, working with social worker Harriet Bakalar. In her small office in the bustling Turner Center, Bakalar recalls how an apartment manager asked her to talk to an older woman whose apartment was so cluttered, that “maintenance could not get to her air conditioner to fix it.” Gradually, Bakalar earned the woman’s trust, and with the help of an out-of-state relative got the place cleaned up.

Bakalar soon discovered that other social workers had encountered similar situations and were uncertain how to respond. Under the umbrella of the Housing Bureau for Seniors, where Bakalar runs an eviction-prevention program, she and Lutomski educated themselves on hoarding, then enlisted representatives of a dozen other social service organizations to form the task force. More recently, the city has signed on as well.

The task force has no money except for a pittance it gets from the housing bureau’s yearly fundraising walk. But the program’s reputation is such that Bakalar fields queries about it from around the state and beyond, and often is invited to speak to classes and groups.

“When I go give lectures I tell them to forget everything they saw” on TV, Bakalar says. “No one thinks reality TV shows treat it [hoarding] in a way productive for anything but entertainment.” Because the shows focus on “extreme cases, we miss everybody else on the spectrum,” Bakalar explains. “It’s too easy to see ‘those people over there’ as crazy.”

Lisha Turner-Tolbert sees hoarding problems in her job as the city’s manager of rental housing. In her two years with the city, Turner-Tolbert says, she and her team have inspected ten apartments with potentially dangerous situations caused by hoarding–for example, possessions blocking a window or an exit. The inspectors issue warnings and try to connect the residents to the task force. Some people “are quite ashamed,” Turner-Tolbert says. Others “absolutely didn’t see what the problem is.” They tell her, “I know where everything is. You guys are picking on me. You’re infringing on my rights.”

Neat and well organized herself, Turner-Tolbert says the experience has given her a keen sense of how easy it is for things to pile up: “everyone knows a neighbor or sister or relative” who has trouble letting go of things.

In their 2010 book Stuff, therapists Randy Frost and Gail Steketee observe that many people who hoard are strongly visual: “For hoarders, every object is rich with detail,” they write. For example, the “color and hue of a magazine cover” alone might be reason to save it.

This insight recalled for me the first (and only) time I entered the home of a former college roommate, who lives in another state. We were both about thirty at the time, and I needed a place to crash for the night. She seemed reluctant to let me stay with her, and I understood why the minute I stepped into her living room. Her four cats’ scratching poles, food dishes, and toys occupied the center of the room, surrounded by piles of newspapers and magazines, kitchen utensils, nice pieces of pottery, and, what struck me the most, a floor lamp with a Tiffany-style glass shade, its price tag still dangling. My roommate had paid $175 for a lamp that was plugged into nothing and stood in the middle of piles of junk.

Standing next to me, “Melissa” teared up. “It could be such a beautiful place, couldn’t it?” she asked. Melissa had always had an appreciation for artistry I lacked. Looking around, she was seeing, perhaps, the home she had meant to create before the hoarder within her–for whatever reason–took over.

Synod Residential Services provides the Hoarding Task Force’s phone number (483-9363, ext. 22); usually Synod’s Lutomski or Harriet Bakalar returns calls. Last year, Lutomski says, they received eighty-two inquiries about hoarding; typically they work with twelve to eighteen people at a time.

In a back room at Synod’s office in Ypsilanti, employee Dave French shows me some items recently relinquished by people he helps: TV remotes, a life-sized plastic chicken, a cutting board, a garbage bag filled with clothes. It will all be given to charity or recycled. The lanky French, who looks to be in his late thirties, has a breezy, relaxed demeanor. The task force stresses that helpers must be nonjudgemental, which is no problem for French, an off-hours freelance music producer. “Everybody’s got crises!” he says cheerfully. “I’m not there as their therapist.”

French says that he approaches clients with “empathy and understanding and lots of garbage bags.” Like other task force workers, he will not throw away anything without the owner’s permission. “He picks something up and says, ‘Tell me what to do with it,'” says one of his clients, whom I’ll call “Carol.”

Carol is a respected professional in her field, neat in appearance, articulate. A decade ago, both of her parents died within a short time, and she inherited their belongings–her mother’s clothes, her dad’s voluminous files. She also experienced medical crises that affected her mobility, making it difficult to lift or bend. And she likes to shop. “It just snowballed,” she says. But with French’s help, she’s now making progress in clearing out her home. “Every week we’d throw out three garbage bags full of things,” she says, and she feels much more in control.

Bakalar says that a person who’s motivated can almost always make progress in combating clutter. She feels she’s succeeded if clients gain enough control of their possessions to remain in their home. She stresses that “does not mean we clean everything in sight, or [that it looks like] House Beautiful.

Dave French says that clients almost always thank him for his help. A particularly moving moment comes when they let him open windows long curtained to hide the clutter from passersby: “The light comes in, and they get happier.”

“Working with the task force has been invaluable,” emails Kristen Larcom of the city attorney’s office who, by default, has ended up as the “hoarding” attorney. The city prefers not to have to take hoarders to court–when that happens, the hours, headaches, and expenses add up fast.

Such was the case when the city tangled with the owners of a home in the Angell School area. The owner of the house next door, retired engineering prof Brice Carnahan, says he filed a complaint with the city about the home in 2006. He described it as a “fire hazard,” noting broken windows and a second-floor room “piled from floor to ceiling with flammable materials.” But the city apparently didn’t take action until late 2008, when it began a series of inspections. An inspector who talked to the homeowner on the phone quoted her as saying that “she is a packrat and so was her mother,” the house’s original owner. Though the task force was able to make progress on the clutter, the house had deeper problems. In mid-2009, the city declared it “uninhabitable.”

When the residents–a family, according to court documents–refused to leave, the city went to court, asking that the house be declared a “public nuisance.” The home was finally vacated last winter, and was sold in May. Carnahan says the new owners have completely gutted and rebuilt it.

Most of the task force’s stories have happier endings. One of the first people they helped, Bakalar recalls, was an “impeccably dressed” seventy-six-year old retired professor who had lived in the same small apartment more than thirty years. He had a “very active social life,” recalls Bakalar, but he conducted it all outside his apartment, which was filled to overflowing with stuff.

To enter the apartment for the first time, recalls Bakalar, “I had to turn sideways.” But the man was very motivated, and within two months the place was transformed. He told Bakalar that he did not want his nieces and nephews, his heirs, to be stuck with the clean-up.

Not long after the job was finished, he died. Whatever had haunted him in life, he’d made sure it would not trouble his family after his death.

Sidebar: Children of Hoarders