MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Until something happens, like a deadly fire or a reality show on the A&E network, hoarding is generally hidden.

On Tuesday morning, investigators say a 68-year-old man couldn’t escape out his front door from a fire that had overtaken his home. In some areas of the house, there was stuff piled from floor to ceiling.

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“We had to fight this fire from the outside because of the extensive personal belongings inside,” said St. Paul Fire Chief Tim Butler.

Studies have shown between 2-5 percent of the population can be considered hoarders.

“Another way to say packrat is a clutterer, a person that has clutter,” said Janet Yeats, a marriage and family therapist. “Hoarding moves us further. And a person that hoards, they can no longer use their house and the rooms in their house for the purpose that they’re intended. They can’t cook in their kitchen. They can’t sleep in their bedroom. They can’t take a shower in their bathroom.”

According to the Institute for Challenging Disorganization, there are five different levels of hoarding.

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Yeats chairs the Minnesota Hoarding Task Force, a group of first responders, building inspectors, code enforcement officials, mental health professionals, city/county employees and biohazard companies. They plan to devise a strategy for cities to use in hoarding situation.

Yeats says it’s hard for people to throw things away because, for many, there is a sentimental value. She believes there are a number of reasons why people would hoard: genetics, family history, a serious brain injury, dementia, or, most often, trauma a person hasn’t fully dealt with.

“When people come along then and say, You’ve got to get rid of that junk, that stuff, that crap,’ all those kinds of words, what they’re really saying is you have to get rid of the things that are keeping you together,” she said.

If you know a hoarder who needs help, Yeats recommends not telling the person they need to clean everything up, but rather focus in on the relationship and try to figure out the reason that’s causing the behavior.

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“I don’t think there’s something wrong with…being a person who hoards,” she said. “I think there is this underlying pain, and that’s what’s wrong.”

Heather Brown