YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) – An increase in hoarding cases has put a strain on local organizations, so much so that they’ve decided to band together to tackle the issue as a group.

Duane Piccirilli, executive director of the Mahoning County Mental Health and Recovery Board, said the idea of the local hoarding coalition got its start before the COVID-19 pandemic, but group members had to disband when COVID hit. Now, they’re taking a new look at the issue.

“The initial few meetings just was gathering people together, and the group keeps growing and growing,” he said.

Several agencies — such as Animal Charity, Children Services and the City Health Department — are involved. Piccirrilli says that group effort is key, as many cases involve the work of a few different agencies. The idea is to provide a centralized point of contact to refer services as needed. Each case is different, and sometimes animals or children are involved.

“Depending on the case, we’ll surround the case and try to solve it,” he said.

Michael Durkin, blight remediation and code enforcement superintendent for the city of Youngstown, said the city had approximately 66 hoarding cases just this year. He has seen more cases in recent years, he thinks, due to hoarding that occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic and then got out of hand, as well as people being more aware of the issue and reporting it.

Durkin said that’s why the work of the coalition is important; to address these issues to get to the root of the problem.

“It does get to be costly down the road when we have certain situations that the city has to handle: you know, removing cockroaches, removing rats, abating neighborhoods, abating properties, you know, tearing down structures, it gets quite expensive,” he said.

He said the way that these cases are addressed is different now than in the past. Rather than criminalize the issue, they’re looking to address the mental health issues behind it.

“The range that we see most of the hoarding are single people [who] are 40 to 60 years old, right around that age range. A lot of times, from a mental health aspect, they’ve had some sort of life-changing event, some trauma in their lives that kind of, you know, led them to where they’re at, and we try to work with that as well,” he said. “And that’s why we work all together to try to find the best avenue. Because they’re not all the same.”

Durkin and Piccirrilli said that is why the hoarding coalition is needed. While Adult Protective Services could handle cases involving people over the age of 65, others were slipping through the cracks.

With levy dollars, the position of “adult navigator” was created. The position, housed at Direction Home, can look into these hoarding reports and offer services.

Doug Doyle, crisis manager of Direction Home of Eastern Ohio, said they can help arrange both mental health services, as well as clean-out and chore services to keep the home at a better level.

“The other component, I think, that we really want to strive for is breaking down the stigma associated with hoarding,” he said. “A lot of times, folks are very aware that this is a problem, and they’re very embarrassed, and they’re very defensive, and we want to try to break down that stigma and let them know that it’s OK; we’re here to help. We don’t want to embarrass anybody. We don’t want to make things worse by making them feel terrible.”

Piccirrilli said they can see that the work that they’re doing is needed.

“The recent ones that we’ve had, the people were in such fragile medical conditions that if we wouldn’t have stepped in and taken them to the hospital, I’m not sure that they would have survived,” he said.

Some other organizations in the state are part of similar group efforts.

Tamar Cooper is the director of Behavioral Health Services and Eldercare Services for Institute of the Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging. She is also part of the Hoarding Connection of Cuyahoga County. Its mission is to educate professionals about hoarding disorders and promote effective responses to cases.

Cooper said they have found success in this group approach to the problem and recommended a group like Mahoning County’s coalition also gain the support of the local courts. Many people who are hoarders also end up in the court system, facing code violations or other legal issues.

“So if you have that linkage, that’s going to help at least address the larger issue, at least there’s a place to go. So that’s why you want to have support or at least some sort of connection,” she said.

Cooper said it’s also important to make sure those responding to hoarding issues have the proper training to deal with it. She said if the person’s mental health issues aren’t addressed, the person will continue the hoarding behavior.

Piccirrilli said they encourage people to report these issues so they can help.

“In no way is this to try to intrude on people. In no way are we trying to be the enforcer to go in and change people’s lives,” Piccirrilli said. “We understand people have rights. We’re just trying to help people. But when their ways start affecting neighbors and the health of children or the welfare of animals, then people might need some more support.”

Those who suspect someone may be hoarding or who want to get help for their hoarding can call any of the above-mentioned agencies or 211 to be referred to services.