If you are living next to someone who appears to be growing a collection of newspapers, trash, and other possessions, you might be understandably concerned—both for their own safety and for the health and hygiene of the neighborhood. If the problem is serious enough, the person might be a "hoarder."
Hoarding is a psychological condition that typically involves keeping a collection of items with little or no value, such as old publications, plastic containers and jars, and even rotten food, or pets. Hoarders often feel the need to keep things that other people would simply throw away in the ordinary course of their lives. Hoarding has received an increased amount of public attention in recent years, and even became the subject of a reality television show.
It is important to distinguish between a neighbor who is merely messy and one who has a true hoarding disorder.
The American Psychiatric Association describes the disorder as characterized by
"persistent difficulty getting rid of or parting with possessions, leading to clutter that disrupts their ability to use their living or work spaces." They say that, "People with hoarding disorder often save random items and store them haphazardly. In most cases, they save items that they feel they may need in the future, are valuable or have sentimental value. Some may also feel safer surrounded by the things they save."
The behavior usually has harmful effects—emotional, physical, social, financial, and even legal—for the person and their family. This is very different from a neighbor who, for example, puts out trash on the street without placing it in the proper receptacle. It is also different from a neighbor who holds a barbecue on the lawn and leaves dirty dishes and plates of food out to collect bugs and animals. These neighbors are simply messy; their conduct might well be in violation of the municipal or neighborhood association rules. But it likely does not rise to the level of a psychological disorder or mental illness.
First of all, you should react with compassion to signs that your neighbor's conduct has crossed the line into a hoarding disorder. Recognize that this is a real mental illness, and not necessarily a conscious choice or controllable instinct on your neighbor's part.
Having said this, you still have cause for concern, both for your neighbor's safety and for the neighborhood. Beyond the psychological impact of the disorder, the accumulation of trash and clutter can attract animals, create public health and hygiene violations, and cause fire hazards. Obviously, these are issues that could affect the broader neighborhood.
So what should you do? For most neighbor disputes, you'd want to begin with a knock on the door or a friendly conversation in the hopes of resolving the situation amicably. Here, that might not be the best approach.
Your better move is likely to seek assistance from the state or local government—especially if your neighbor appears to live alone without family to check in. Many cities have agencies with social welfare workers, who will take anonymous tips and send investigators to speak with the person and evaluate the situation. In New York City, for example, that's Adult Protective Services. In Los Angeles, it's the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health.
In short, don't be afraid to intervene. As long as you intervene with compassion and go through the appropriate channels, your neighbor might actually get much-needed help, and the whole neighborhood will be better off for it. That's a win-win.
Need a lawyer? Start here.