PORTLAND, Maine (NEWS CENTER) -- Until recently, inspectors with the city of Portland only received a handful of complaints about hoarding each year, but in the past couple of years the number has increased dramatically.

PHOTOS: Hoarding on the rise in Portland

"It has definitely become something that has been increasingly more often," stated Tammy Munson, the city's director of inspections. "It becomes a life safety issue for the occupants of the building and, especially if it is in a multi-family apartment building, then it becomes an additional fire load."

Most often, Munson is called in to inspect a home or apartment by neighbors or relatives once the situation has gotten out of hand.

"When it gets to say the level of a ten, that is when typically we have been involved with these people for you know eight, ten years even," she said. "We're tasked with trying to get it to a level where it is actually safe for the occupants or safe for first responders, because you are dealing with someone that has a really debilitating disease."

"Anyone can be a hoarder," explained Linda Weare, director of Portland's Office of Elder Affairs. "Lots of times we find other issues going on with that individual - financial problems, health problems."

Many times the hoarder is elderly and lives alone.

"There is a level of shame I think with the whole issue, they don't want people to see how they live. They have been isolated for a long time, so you are really up against a complicated situation going in," said Weare. "There is no easy, quick answer to any of these, and they are all a little bit different, so our approach might be different."

To help create a more thorough and effective response to the problem, the city has created a hoarding response team.

"It is about their safety and their well-being, but it is also about addressing a growing problem that we are seeing more and more of in the city of Portland," explained Munson."There wasn't any particular person that had sort of ownership that could help us in this and how to deal with it."

"It is really about trying to get them some help," she added.

The response team seeks to work with hoarders, to get them the help they need and come up with a plan to help them remove some of the clutter in their lives.

"I think people are nervous that when you call inspections that we are going to go out there and we are going to remove you from your house,which we can do that, but that is not our approach," said Munson."This is something that is a really crippling disease for people and they need help,and until recently, I don't think there was a lot of help out there."

While the city does not have the funds to pay for remediation of a hoarder's property, they are hoping to apply for grants and receive donations that will help them make an impact.

"It is a complicated problem and it requires patience and compassion and other expertise," Weare stated."We go in and it looks like a pile of trash, but it has meaning to them and it has value and we have to be respectful of that."

The city also encourages neighbors and relatives to contact the Inspection Services Office at 874-8703 if they have questions or concerns. Callers can remain anonymous if they wish to report someone they believe may have an issue with hoarding.

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