Supporting hoarding tenants through COVID

Officially, an estimated 5% of the UK population suffers from hoarding disorder, however the number is likely to be far higher than recorded. Hoarding is exemplified by the proliferation of objects and the inability to let go of them, that over time makes life within a household limited or impossible. Last month Chelsea Kelly, Head of Community Safeguarding and Danielle Bishop, Safeguarding Manager at London housing association, Poplar HARCA ran a virtual best practice-sharing event introducing their approaches to supporting hoarding tenants during COVID-19.

Building meaningful relationships with hoarding tenants is key to making progress and ensuring a tenant’s wellbeing. With difficulties gaining access to properties during lockdown to work with their hoarding residents, safeguarding teams across the country have had to adapt the way that these relationships work.

Hoarding is a big part of what we do; due to the nature of hoarding and the support that needs to be put in place for hoarding tenants, it’s probably one of the longest pieces of work we do.

Danielle Bishop, Safeguarding Manager, Poplar HARCA

A particularly sensitive issue, the effects of hoarding not only disrupt an individual’s life, but also those of their loved ones and surrounding neighbours. The causes of hoarding are widely varied, but can include the sudden bereavement of somebody close, or underlying mental health concerns such as depression, anxiety or OCD.

The approach

Hoarding may initially be dealt with by a housing association as an antisocial behaviour (ASB) issue, with neighbours reporting pest control problems or bad odours from a home. However, due to some of the identified causes of hoarding, Poplar HARCA approach the issue from a safeguarding perspective.

No two cases of hoarding are the same and the housing team take an individual approach to hoarding disorder by building strong relationships, gaining trust from those needing help and identifying their needs.

We tackle hoarding from a safeguarding position first before taking any other actions. The main thing we do is build a relationship; we start from the bottom, make sure that the tenant knows they can trust us. Initially we tell them that we know that this isn’t going to be a quick fix, it’s going to be long-term issue.

Danielle Bishop, Safeguarding Manager, Poplar HARCA

For Poplar HARCA, transformation begins with short-term goals. Setting these ensures that the individual is not overwhelmed, that results can happen slowly and that the action is theirs. Small steps are particularly effective because for hoarders, each item is invested with meaning and can be extremely difficult to discard.

Many cases of hoarding dealt with by Poplar HARCA are established by the repairs team, with hoarding tendencies often spotted when conducting electrical and fire safety inspections. Following the Grenfell tragedy, across the UK inspections led to properties being visited that hadn’t been accessed for years. As such, in 2018/2019 Poplar HARCA recorded 18 new cases, two thirds of which are still being actively worked on.

Prior to COVID, the approach was to gain entry to the individual’s home, working alongside them and giving them access to the estate services team so that any discarded items could be removed. One method of working with hoarding tenants was to create physical photo diaries of the progress made in a home. Approaching a hoard can be overwhelming and using a visual tool to evidence progress can really spur an individual on to make further progress.

Partnership working

A key partner for Poplar HARCA is their ‘Parkguard’, a service that patrols the estates they manage to make them safe from ASB. They also conduct welfare checks on residents that have been highlighted as a concern, with the safeguarding team taking a proactive approach and training their contractors to look out for signs that a household needs support.

Now more than ever, Poplar HARCA have been relying on multi-agency partnership co-operation to assist in safeguarding cases. No longer able to be ‘on the ground’ means that strong working relationships with Social Services and The London Fire Brigade have been reinforced, with both bodies continuing to undertake home visits. While on visits the safeguarding team at Poplar HARCA have been able to request that social workers set up video or phone calls when they are physically in the property, meaning that the team maintain a level of contact with the tenant.

COVID challenges

For some, hoarding is a method of exercising control and the events of this year have led to more people than ever feeling a loss of their normal control. There is a worry for Poplar’s safeguarding team about the long-term impacts of distanced working with their hoarding tenants. A lack of physical contact has presented challenges, with residents more able to avoid contact. In some of the hoarding cases where the team were making good headway, lockdown brought on added levels of anxiety and stress, following which the engagement process has slowed. The primary concern in cases such as these is the situation getting beyond help.

When this happens, the risk to the property can become too high. At that point action would move towards getting an injunction to clear the property. This is not a route taken lightly; while it may seem like a quick solution that is beneficial to a housing provider, in the long term without proper support it’s likely that an individual will return to living with a hoard in an ultimately, unsustainable tenancy.


Poplar HARCA use the MRI Social Housing solution, Streetwise as their case management system. Being cloud-based, it has facilitated teams to continue to monitor cases whilst remote working. The system contains both ASB and Domestic Abuse modules but as well as this, Poplar have been using the system to record instances of hoarding and any progress in cases.

Images can be uploaded to the case file and as with the idea of physical photo albums, officers are able to track and illustrate any progress to their hoarding tenants. In unfortunate and extreme cases, Streetwise also allows the team to track any legal actions that may need to be taken.

Streetwise is fantastic. From an Officer’s point of view, all the information you need to add and manage a case can be done so quickly and from a Manager’s perspective, you are able to run reports and easily check Officer caseload to see who is working on what.

Chelsea Kelly, Head of Community Safeguarding, Poplar HARCA

Looking forwards

As the approach to many services becomes ever more reliant on technology, Poplar HARCA have been investigating the viability of providing customers with dongles to ensure a connection is maintained and customers can continue to submit photographic evidence and keep in contact. Virtual support groups and one-to-one sessions have been set up to provide the much-needed support to an emotional problem with a physical manifestation.

It’s been fascinating working with Poplar HARCA to see how their approach to working with their tenants to build trust has led to a significant decrease in hoarding cases. The Safeguarding team rely on Streetwise to effectively manage their cases of hoarding by uploading clutter scale and support plans and are able to instantly view linked cases. Poplar HARCA also use Streetwise to manage cases of antisocial behaviour and domestic abuse and I look forward to continuing our excellent relationship to support them with these highly important matters.

Greg Andrews, MRI Software

Watch the full best practice-sharing session here.

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