Patricia Jones hasn't seen the cat in nine months. Jones said the animal sleeps in the living room and eats the cat food that is set out for it.
But verifying that assertion is difficult because of the mountains of trash that have taken over the downtown Chilliwack home.
Chilliwack Fire Department (CFD) Capt. Don Van Beest certainly isn't ready to take the food's disappearance as proof of the animal's continued residence. After all, an exterminator recently removed four rats-three Norwegians and a brown-from the trash-strewn home. And a glance around the house gives one little confidence that it's entirely free of vermin.
The downtown Chilliwack home of Patricia, 90, and her 56-year-old son Glen (not their real names) is a death trap.
Open the front door and you are greeted by a narrow corridor between the wall and a mountain of debris.
Outside, the air is chilly and wet. Inside, five space heaters are running full blast and the temperature is in the mid-to upper-20s. The smell of mould exerts a stranglehold on the nose.
The house is a wreck. The basement is flooded by a burst hot water tank. Bushes crowd the walkway leading to the front door. The inside pane of the living-room window is broken.
Everywhere there are mountains of garbage, paper, cardboard and products bought and never used. Seven-feet-tall, they loom over the diminutive Patricia. In the middle of the living room-far beyond reach- an unopened pack of toilet paper sits atop one pile. Ditto for the basement.
As the CFD's fire prevention officer, it's Van Beest's job to deal with hoarders. He sees nine or 10 cases a year, and draws on a variety of resources, from health officials to civic groups and personal contacts. He said he can usually get people to change their ways and reduce the clutter-and fire danger-in their homes. But for four years, he has had no answer to the growing disorder within Patricia and Glen's home.
He has tried counselling and cajoling. He has called a variety of public and private agencies. He has talked to family doctors, churches and civic groups. He called the Ministry of Seniors, who could only refer him to other agencies. He called the Fraser Health Authority, which declared the pair "capable" of living on their own. He has even tried shaming the home's occupants. Nothing has worked.
"I've got no more tools in the box to deal with this particular situation," he said.
Out of options, he invited a reporter along on this visit with the hope of spurring some action.
Son is seeing a psychiatrist
Mental illness seems to be at the root of the Jones's situation.
Aside from a year spent in a children's hospital, Glen has lived his whole life with his mother and has been seeing psychiatrists since he was a child.
He compulsively wipes his finger-tips with Kleenex, and then folds and stacks the used tissues in mountains. He tells Van Beest and his mother that they don't understand his condition
and protests when action is taken to remove trash from the home.
"He feels like I'm robbing him, so he gets it back," Patricia explains. "I keep telling him everyday I'm going to throw out the stuff."
Patricia says she was able to push back against the chaos when she was younger. But widowed for going on 26 years, she has increasingly found herself in a losing battle in recent years
"I can take care of myself, but this is too much for me," she tells Van Beest when he stops by with coffee. "It's pathetic. It is pathetic. I hate it."
She says her husband told Glen to look after his mother, then lets out a laugh that's either bitter or resigned, or both.
(Patricia, though, also shows some signs of a tendency to hoard, according to Van Beest.)
"You know I can get you out of here," Van Beest tells Patricia, as he contemplates four different, unopened brands of peanut butter stacked on boxes five feet off the floor.
Patricia and Van Beest talk in canyons of boxes, beneath mountains of cardboard. Hot air chugs through the valleys like a mouldy chinook.
"I'm worried about these piles perhaps falling on you," Van Beest says. "I can get you out of here, but it's without Glen."
Patricia still clings to the hope that her son will improve with further meetings with his psychiatrist. But, almost in the same breath, she admits Glen's compulsion is as bad now as it has ever been.
A devout Christian, Patricia is adamant God will provide for her in the next life. But she seems less convinced her lot in this lifetime will improve; atop one stack is a book titled 100 Things God Can't Do.
Van Beest, though, is fearful that one day the fire department will be called to the house as it goes up in flames.
Throughout their conversation, Van Beest cajoles and sympathizes with Patricia. He's tough with her and questions her assertions. But he also is quick with a smile.
"I love Don," Patricia says. "He's a wonderful person. I love him dearly . . . I know that he has a responsibility and I know how he feels."
Van Beest would like to find someone to step up and take responsibility for Glen, whether he likes it or not. But the bar for committing a person to a mental illness institution has been dramatically raised in recent decades.
While he couldn't speak about specific cases, Fraser Health mental health services director Stan Kuperis told the Times that patients must voluntarily consent to receive help. People can only be "committed" if they are shown to pose a danger to themselves or others. Given the previous assessment by Fraser Health that he is capable of living on his own, it seems unlikely that Glen would qualify to be committed.
Van Beest, is adamant that there is danger in the house. But he can only beg and plead with the Joneses to clean up their home.
"How do I get somebody involved who can do something concrete?" Van Beest asks. "With civil liberties being what they are, we allow this to happen when we say Patricia is allowed to live like this, [Glen] is allowed to live like this in spite of the fact that anybody who comes in here knows that it's wrong."
Van Beest feels helpless. Beyond asking other agencies to help, he can do one more thing: order Patricia and Glen out of their crowded house.
But then what? He would have made two people homeless-one a 90-year-old widow, the other a mentally ill man who can't maintain a home and who hasn't held a job since he abruptly quit a paper route when he was 11 years old.
"He needs help," his mother says. "He needs medical help."
"He's not going to ask for the help he needs," Van Beest replies.
Always worse than the time before
At the door, Patricia bids Van Beest farewell by asking for more time and promising to tame some of the mess.
Van Beest will acquiesce, but not without reservations.
"It's always been worse than the time before," he says as he walks around the house to the backyard. "It is wrong, on any level that you care to look at it."
The backyard includes a large patio area that is covered by an equally broad roof. Under that roof, an expansive pile of trash has accumulated. And atop that pile sits a black cat, carefully eyeing its visitors.
Before he left, Patricia told Van Beest she wanted to sell the house. The patio would would be a key selling point, if the rest of the building was not beyond repair.
"I am putting it up. I'm selling it this year," she said.
"I'm going to rent a place if I'm still alive and kicking."
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