by Julian Goldschmidt
Mary Bobolas and her two daughters live in Bondi. Their home has pulling power, which, according to one resident, generates more public interest than Sculptures by the Sea. But far from attracting art lovers, the passing foot traffic and cars slowing to a crawl are the unwanted result of Mrs Bobolas’ extreme hoarding.
Waverly Council recently removed tonnes of rubbish from the property. The accumulated items, which reached the eaves and spilled over the low front fence, were taken to a tip in Alexandria to the distress of Mrs Bobolas. But it’s a temporary solution at best, the 14th such clean-up going back 30 years. The Council estimates the cost of repeated clean-ups and legal fees over three decades to be $365,000.
But is the cycle of hoarding, followed by the big clean-up, simply destined to be repeated? Arthur Kyron, Waverley Council’s General Manager, says, “We are attempting to engage various organisations to prepare ways to support the family and address the hoarding behaviour.”
One of the organisations is Catholic Care’s Hoarding and Squalor Intervention Program. According to Mercy Splitt, the program’s senior coordinator, “The big clean-up is not always successful. People don’t accept help because they don’t see there’s a problem. If a person is non-cooperative, there is no intervention. You can’t force anybody to accept support.
“People can hoard anything and everything. There are people who hoard bodily fluids. There’s old food that’s completely liquefied. Clients will say ‘I’m not going to eat it’, but it’s an inability to let it go. There’s animal hoarding – people with 150 cats – that comes from an unfulfilled need to nurture.”
It’s clearly a complex problem. Ms Splitt points out that 70 per cent of clients accessing her service are socially isolated, while 88 per cent have a diagnosed mental illness, which can be anything from depression to schizophrenia.
“Hoarding is an issue when it starts to impact on a person’s safety or the safety of others; when it starts to take over activities or daily living,” she says. “For instance, when there is someone who is sleeping in the backyard or on the front veranda because they can’t access the bedroom,” she says.
Sometimes hoarding starts out as collecting and gets progressively out of hand. “How many people have that spare room that just ends up becoming a junk room,” she says. But it seems the main difference between collecting and hoarding is a sense of shame surrounding the activity. “When a person collects things, he or she is proud of their items. With hoarding, it’s more a case of, deep down I know this is not acceptable, but I don’t know what to do’.”
And sometimes it’s learnt behaviour, according to Mercy Splitt. “If parents chuck fruit scraps on the floor, that becomes normal,” she says.
She says no two clients are the same and the trick to a successful intervention is to try and isolate the point when the behaviour started and identify what triggered it. Building trust is evidently key. “Trust is based on acceptance. We need to accept the fact that this is the situation the client’s in. Then we can ask what are we going to do to support the client to move forward.
“The biggest thing we do is set goals,” she says. These may include returning in a week’s time to collect specific clothes, or it may be putting masking tape on the wall at a height of one metre and working to clear away anything above the line.
Ms Splitt acknowledges the difficulties that arise when hoarding affects others in the community, especially when people don’t accept support services.
Rod Mounjed, who has lived opposite the Bobolas house for 35 years, has a neighbourly relationship with the family and, while he’s sensitive to the situation, says “We’ve been hurting for a number of decades with this stuff.”
He looks forward to the day when the street is not a magnet for passers-by. “I’d just like to see a nice clean house,” he says.