Beloved resident faces loss of home
Sylvester Simpson is well known in the Dyersburg community.
The 39-year-old rides his bike throughout town and is often on hand to help with community initiatives or encourage others in times of need.
He regularly lends a hand at charitable events like the Feed the Need food distribution and his appearance in the Dyersburg Christmas Parade is always a favorite. One year, Sylvester walked the Dyersburg parade route in the cold winter weather in his bare feet, carrying a full-size cross on his back and rendering those attending the parade speechless.
Throughout the Dyer County community, Sylvester is regarded as a helper and a man with strong Christian values. But many in the community don't know that he was almost a television star.
Sylvester was recently a candidate to appear on the show, "Hoarders" on A&E. The opportunity came when Matthew 25:40 Executive Director Amy McDonald searched the Internet for a way to help Sylvester with his organizational issues in an effort to save his home.
Sylvester's house in the Bruce Community first belonged to his grandmother, Irene Johnson. He grew up in the home and he lived there with his father, Raymond Brown. When his father died, Sylvester lived in the house alone.
But organizational issues have stopped Sylvester from living in the home for the past two years. When his collections filled the yard and he received notices from the city, Sylvester said he often took the bags from the yard inside the house.
Other times, the city cleaned the yard for him. When the house filled, he added storage buildings to the backyard and stayed in the office of a local business to help look after things at night. When the storage sheds were filled, the collection moved to the yard once again.
Eventually the home was condemned, with the city citing the structure full of trash and debris as a health hazard.
"I have a place to stay," said Sylvester. "But not a home. Home is where your dogs are, where your mail comes. I thank (Dyersburg) Mayor (John) Holden and the Codes Department for their patience and willingness to work with me. It just got out of hand."
As Sylvester faced the possibility of losing his home, McDonald tried to find a solution that would not only address the cleanup, but the reasons behind the organizational issues.
To appear on "Hoarders", Sylvester had to agree to undergo counseling. The two-part solution seemed the perfect answer to save Sylvester's home and allow him to live inside it for many years to come.
On Friday, McDonald learned that the show filled its season without Sylvester's story. Hollywood would not ride in to save the day.
"(I thank) the Hoarder show and Amy McDonald and the State Gazette," said Sylvester. "We all were expecting the Hoarder show people to come, but unfortunately not. I thank God for the show even though it didn't come through. My main concern is being able to keep the land so that hopefully in the future I will be able to sell this lot and get some land somewhere else. I need to be able to relocate and have something to relocate with."
Many residents in the community who would love to help Sylvester are simply wondering what they can do.
Cleaning up the property and the home would be an extensive project - and one that comes with the possibility of additional landfill fees. But even if residents rallied to clear the lot and save the structure, Sylvester would still struggle with his organizational issues.
Still open to counseling, Sylvester hopes for a chance to pay off what he owes the city and begin again.
"I thank the city for their patience," said Sylvester. "That has really been a blessing. I am not trying to get out of paying what I owe."
So if Hollywood won't come calling, maybe residents of Dyersburg touched by this beloved member of the community can join together to help Sylvester work toward his own happy ending. Those interested in offering solutions, service, donations or helping in any way may contact McDonald at 286-9054.
What is hoarding disorder?
To understand the issue of hoarding, it might be best to clarify misconceptions about the disorder. Dr. Christiana Bratiotis of Boston University School of Social Work's Hoarding Research Project recently helped with that in a phone interview with the State Gazette.
Dr. Bratiotis earned her doctoral degree in the interdisciplinary social work and sociology program from the School of Social Work in May 2009. In 2006, she was awarded a one year pre-dissertation fellowship from the Charles H. Farnsworth Trust of Boston to study community responses to public cases of compulsive hoarding. She has presented over 70 invited community lectures and agency clinical trainings on treatment of compulsive disorders and authored "Compulsive Hoarding in Older Adults," a computer-based social work training program.
The issue of hoarding is not rare.
A study conducted through Boston University in 2008 shows the disorder affects 5 percent of the U.S. population - or approximately 6 million Americans.
"(That is) an enormous number," said Dr. Christiana Bratiotis of Boston University School of Social Work's Hoarding Research Project. "(This is) not an unusual situation. It is a problem with widespread prevalence, affecting a lot of communities."
Bratiotis said communities across North America are coming together around the issue of hoarding, forming task forces consisting of a mix of public and private entities. These task forces often have representatives from public health, housing and mental health services who wish to address the problem of hoarding in their communities.
"(These task forces) come together to strategize and work in a collaborative way," said Bratiotis. "There are over 85 task forces in North America, in the U.S. and Canada. When I started in this (field) eight years ago there were five."
Bratiotis said three aspects define a hoarding disorder:
First, the resident acquires too many things.
"(These are things) that actually look to most people like they don't have a lot of value," said Bratiotis. "But what we know by talking to people who are hoarding is that these items have tremendous value to them."
Next, the amount of items collected begins to interfere with the person being able to use their home in the way it was intended.
"(The collector) may not be able to sleep in their bed," said Bratiotis. "(Or he) may not be able to use the bathtub or kitchen sink (for the purpose they were designed for)."
And last, the amount of objects collected actually causes the person distress or interferes with the way he conducts his life. The person may be distressed by the number of items or be distressed by neighbors or family members who have a problem with the accumulated items.
"There is sometimes a lack of awareness," said Bratiotis. "They are not the ones troubled with the problem."
Bratiotis reminds residents that a hoarding disorder is not simply the result of someone who was not trained in organization as a child, nor is it the result of a traumatic situation.
"It is a complicated picture, the factors that contribute to the onset (of hoarding). We know there are many contributors," said Bratiotis, who said the Boston University study found genetics play a part in those with the condition and functional MRIs show differences in the brain activity between people who hoard and those who do not. "Hoarding is conceptualized as a mental illness. This is not a problem of laziness, lack of standards, or immorality. He isn't choosing this way of life, it is a mental illness like schizophrenia or depression. It is a complex picture. Again, he is not choosing this."
Bratiotis said hoarding is currently being considered for classification as a mental illness.
"Hoarding refers to the volume of possessions," said Bratiotis, who said the disorder does not always equal squalor or neglect of the structure of the home. "It is important to note that (collectors) can have a perfectly clean home that just has too many things. (However) these are not often the cases that come to public attention."
Bratiotis said helping residents with a hoarding disorder is two-fold. It is not only about meeting the need, it is about creating a long-term solution.
"Cleaning out the place is the short term fix," said Bratiotis. "It can prevent condemnation, homelessness - it is first step. (But) simply moving the person to a new location or simply removing the clutter is not a solution. We have good research that concludes (you must) address underlying beliefs and emotions. (There are) a whole host of reasons that people save these objects. There is a reason for everything and not only are there strong reasons, but there are strong emotions. (It is essential to) address the underlying reasons about why they are saving these objects."
Bratiotis said research shows the benefit of an in-home coach or mental health specialist. Residents with a hoarding disorder who clean up their home without addressing the reasons behind it find the clutter comes back quicker and more abundantly.
Resources available for more information on hoarding can be found at www.ocfoundation.org/hoarding. "The Hoarding Handbook: A Guide for Human Service," a book written by Bratiotis and Gail Steketee is an additional tool. The book is filled with case studies, tips and strategies, and easy-to-use suggestions for professionals responding to hoarding situations.
Additional information for this article was obtained from www.bu.edu.