By Jayme Fraser
HOUSTON — The Houston City Council unanimously approved an anti-hoarding ordinance Wednesday without a clear idea of how it will be enforced.
The ordinance, which does not apply to single-family homes, clarifies when police can seek a warrant to enter a home and prioritizes mental health treatment before turning to daily fines of up to $500.
The ordinance does not specify how deep piles of apparent junk must be, nor how long neighbors can be expected to battle insect or rodent infestations while city officials seek treatment of a suspected hoarder and a clean-up of the property.
To a large extent, Mayor Annise Parker said, enforcement will be at the discretion of responding police officers.
Internal policies outlining possible hoarding thresholds, how agencies will coordinate a response and who will have a final say in the decision still must be written.
Houston Police Department spokesman Kese Smith would not comment on how the policy will be created, who will be consulted or how long it could take. Enforcement will not begin until after a public education campaign, he said.
Whatever details are decided, Sgt. Mike Hill, who spoke to council about his experience responding to hoarding situations, said it takes time to resolve severe cases.
"It's not something you can fix in one trip," Hill said. "We're working on voluntary compliance. You're talking to someone who doesn't realize or may not acknowledge they have a mental illness and we want them to get help. It's always going to be months."
Council members said they expect the ordinance to reinforce the existing relationship between HPD and the Mental Health and Mental Retardation Authority of Harris County, who often perform joint welfare checks.
MHMRA Executive Director Stephen Schnee said the agency would complete assessments and recommend treatment, but not be involved in enforcement decisions.
The ordinance was prompted by requests from residents and home-owner associations for the city to use health and building codes to address the issue of extreme hoarding cases that can take months or even years to resolve.
Historically, Parker said, it has been easiest for police and city agencies to gain legal justification to enter a hoarder's residence when they can show an immediate threat of animal abuse.
Much of the council discussion before the vote centered on the question of what would trigger enforcement of the ordinance.
"How much paper in a person's home is considered too much paper or is considered hoarding?" Councilman Michael Kubosh asked.
"I'm concerned whether writing them a citation is going to help them with a disorder. How is this going to be brought to light? By smell? By infestation?"
Several council members said they trusted HPD and other city agencies to be sensitive when applying the ordinance to someone who may have hoarding disorder, a recognized mental illness, rather than people who are simply unclean.
"They will do the right thing," Councilwoman Brenda Stardig said. "If not, I rely on the citizens and others to let us know."
Several experts said flexibility and training has been crucial to the efforts to combat hoarding.
"We give people a lot of time to address the situation," said Michael Gause, deputy director of the Mental Health Association of San Francisco.
Permanently resolving hoarding that has become hazardous requires treating the person, not the mess, he said, and doing otherwise can make the situation worse.
To that end, San Francisco and Boston have created peer response teams in which people successfully managing their own hoarding disorders are among the first to speak with anyone suspected of extreme hoarding.
"The compassion is huge," Gause said. "Each person is different."
Despite the ordinance, Parker said enforcement by authorities is not her preferred first choice for dealing with hoarders.
"Having the ability to say to a family member, 'This is against the law. If you don't do this, if you don't work on this issue, if you don't seek the help you need, there will be a police intervention,' is one more tool that can help resolve the issue," she said. "The goal is never to write a citation for something like this because we understand it's a mental health issue, but this gets us in the door."
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
Copyright 2014 the Houston Chronicle