Framingham Student Living in Labyrinth: A look into a life residing with a hoarder

From outside, the small blue house where Jon Harris, 21, has lived for most of his life fits in with the quaint neighborhood.

However, upon crossing the threshold, the dim lighting is anything but inviting. Piles of paper and office supplies lay scattered across what once was a usable dining room table. The trail of papers, opened envelopes and boxes spill off the table and into a living room that has slowly transformed into a bedroom. Clothes and shoes muddle the space. A pile of wood stands in a corner by the door.

Down a hallway is Harris’ room. It is cozy and comfortable. The walls are covered with posters of his favorite athletes, clippings from newspapers and a high school football jersey. The room is extremely ordered and clean, everything from his shoes to his hats are precisely placed.

There is one window but the blinds are always closed, as is the door. The room is isolated from the rest of the house – and for good reason. The house has become a home for not just Harris, his older brother and his father, but for all the stuff that his father has been accumulating over the past 14 years.

Harris grew up poor. He remembers how, when he was eight, the boiler broke. It is still broken to this day. His father has fixed it temporarily so that the hot water works. “Instead of having a company bring oil, he goes to the gas station and gets diesel fuel himself,” Harris said.

“We used to not have hot water all the time,” he said. Unable to fix the boiler completely, his father built a wood-burning stove in order to heat the house. He even found a makeshift way to fix the dryer when it broke, Harris said.

“We didn’t have a lot of food growing up, … or money. It was terrible. Sometimes I would go to bed hungry,” said Harris.

The clutter consumes the dining room, the living room, the den, a linen closet, the garage and what was Harris’ father’s bedroom.

Harris’ father sleeps in the living room because his bedroom is uninhabitable.

“He has a bedroom, but he doesn’t sleep there because he says there is mold,” said Harris. “I haven’t seen the mold. … But every time he cleans it [the bedroom], it isn’t clean enough to sleep in.”

Growing up, there were five people living in the three-bedroom house. Harris was the youngest, and had to sleep on the sofa in the living room.

“It felt like I had no space of my own,” Harris said. “There was a lack of respect for my personal space.

“My mom left before that. … I was seven,” Harris said. “When my mom was here, the house was spotless.”

After she left, Harris lived in the house with his two brothers, his uncle and his father.

“I didn’t like how dirty the house was, growing up,” said Harris.

Now, it is only Harris, his brother and his father. Harris and his father coach high school football together in the summer. While they have a good relationship, Harris doesn’t know where his dad is most of the time.

When asked what his father does for work, Harris said, “He does odd jobs – I have no idea.”

Although he has talked to his father about the accumulation of stuff throughout the house, Harris described those conversations as “a joke.”

“What ultimately needs to happen,” said Harris, is “taking everything and throwing it out and starting over.

“I tried to convince him to get a dumpster over the summer, because if you saw the garage, you would freak out,” Harris said.

“Nobody that isn’t my family has seen the garage,” he said. “I was five or six, the last time I remember the garage being used for a vehicle.”

The 12-by-22-foot garage is packed high full of stuff. Boxes, suitcases, furniture, board games, plastic bins and other miscellaneous items tower eight feet high. The floor is not visible, and it is impossible to get to the other side without climbing over the massive mountain of possessions.

“There was a little path,” said Harris. “We would have to climb through to get to the fuse box, if one went out,” he added.

At 16, Harris was almost evicted from his home.

“We were on the foreclosure list,” he said. When Harris asked about the eviction, he remembers his father “played it off like he didn’t know.” It wouldn’t be the first time Harris would be close to eviction.

When Harris’ eldest brother returned home from college to take a year off, the clutter had gotten so overwhelming that there was no room for him, and he decided to move out.

Paul Welch, a licensed independent clinical social worker at Framingham State, said hoarding is “genetically and environmentally based.

“Seventy-five percent of those who have this disorder also have a mood disorder,” he added. This includes depression or anxiety.

Welch described having a personal experience with a friend who is classified as a hoarder.

“He is very sensitive about the word hoarder,” Welch said.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, the estimated occurrence of “clinically-significant hoarding in the United States and Europe [is] approximately two to six percent.”

Charles Sachs, an assistant professor at FSU, has a PhD in psychology and his own practice. He said there are varying degrees of hoarding, but that all cases of hoarding have specific characteristics. It is only considered hoarding, he said, when it impacts living space, the things collected have no inherit meaning and the excessive accumulation of things causes for minimal functional space.

“Most hoarders are egosyntonic, meaning they are OK with their hoarding. They have their reasons [to hoard],” said Sachs. However, “these reasons are not usually rational.”

Both Welch and Sachs agree it is important to have and show compassion for the person that hoards, to help them recognize that they have a problem.

Harris’ living situation is strenuous and causes him discomfort, he said.

“I used to be embarrassed when people would come over, especially if they had a clean house,” he added. Even now, Harris doesn’t invite people over to his house.

“I have, but they come straight into my room,” he said. He intentionally avoids showing the rest of the house.

Nestled in the cozy neighborhood, the little blue house fixed between pine trees and evergreens conceals the hoarding in plain sight.

Although his father’s hoarding has negatively impacted Harris’ life, like any son, he loves his father.

“My dad is the coolest,” he said. “I would rather have my dad and a shitty house then another dad and a nice house.”

[Editor’s note: Jon Harris is not this student’s real name. He has asked to remain anonymous.]

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