MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — It’s been a week since the Minnesota Hoarding Task Force was launched, aiming to curb a problem that is puzzlingly high profile yet often ignored.

The organization’s president, Janet Yeats, has seen the worst of hoarding in Minnesota and throughout the country. She and her colleagues are eager to break stereotypes and fundamentally change the way the public views the issue.

“We’re not even behind the curve, we’re not really even (on the map),” said Yeats, a St. Paul-based mental health professional who, in addition to chairing the Task Force, treats patients who struggle with hoarding. “A number of social services don’t know what to do about it, so they do nothing, or eventually offer the wrong kind of response.”

Hoarding is often a psychological reaction to unresolved trauma or loss, but Yeats knows that stereotypes frequently prevent the public from viewing it through that lens.

“The thought is that hoarders are just crazy, lazy, dirty, homeless or headed that way,” Yeats said. “There’s this perception that it’s not a mental disorder and that (hoarders) could just clean it up if they wanted to.”

Yeats’ patients are often quick to realize that their hoarding is tied to a past traumatizing event, but are hesitant to admit they have a disorder.

“They have this hole in them and, instead of coping with the pain, use physical objects to fill that space,” Yeats said. “People can leave, but stuff won’t leave. The reality is hoarding effects all income levels, professions, ethnicities and genders. A lot of them are doctors, lawyers, professors who all function in their job … and then go home and hoard.”

The emergence of cable television shows like “Hoarders” on A&E and “Hoarding: Buried Alive” on TLC have been a double-edged sword for professionals like Yeats.

While the programs have attracted more attention to the issue, episodes portray the most severe cases of hoarding, leaving viewers with a largely black-and-white perspective.

“There are many levels of hoarding that occur before you get to that (level that is seen on television),” Yeats said. “The shows reinforce the stereotype for hoarders, too. If you know people will see you as lazy or dirty, why would you want to admit that?”

The two top-rated comments on a YouTube clip of an episode from “Hoarding: Buried Alive” seem to reinforce that idea.

“I really hope nobody on this show cleaned up this mess and actually made…no, FORCED these lazy people to clean it up themselves. I don’t care if it’s a mental disorder or whatever, from the way they talk about it they know it’s not right and it’s ‘gross’ so take some garbage bags and clean it…up!”
— Whisperinloudness, October 2012

“What is wrong with these people! ‘We just throw the boxes on the ground.’ Why not in the outside trash can?! These people are just trashy lowlife pigs living in their own filth!”
— Harbinger28567, October 2012

In addition to mental health professionals, the Task Force includes experts on housing and building codes and professional organizers. Their intent is to emphasize that hoarding is not just a made-for-TV spectacle, it’s a palpable mental health and safety issue that needs more attention.

Last December, an elderly woman was unable her burning Shoreview home because of “severe hoarding” inside.

“It’s hard to describe there are just so much stuff to navigate,” said Lake Johanna Fire Chief Tim Boehlke. “Things could fall over on them, firefighters can become trapped. (Hoarding) situations become very dangerous for us.”

Still, Yeats worries that it might take a horrific story for our community to realize how serious a problem hoarding is.

“I think about that all the time, and I worry that a child, a firefighter, even something awful may not be enough. There are plenty who have already died or lost a lot in this situation and (the issue still) hasn’t received the attention it deserves.”

Yeats, with her colleagues, have worked extensively on The Hoarding Project.