Collecting, Hoarding, Clutter, and Squalor. What’s the difference?

In our line of work, we often encounter people who hoard, live with a lot of clutter, or even live in extreme filth and squalor. The line between collecting things, refusing to throw away things or put them in their proper place, and hoarding things can often be blurred. 

Let’s discuss the differences between collecting, hoarding, clutter and squalor.

  • Collecting – People typically collect and carefully preserve or display items that they have an interest in. Examples of collections include paintings, books, old coins or foreign currency, baseball cards, seashells, clocks, stamps, postcards and cups, glasses, or mugs. The collector prescribes the category and criteria for the collection, and, in most cases, strictly adheres to it. The collector usually collects items with a great interest and passion. Some collectors will travel hundreds of miles to find and even overpay for an item. This passion may lay the ground for obsession, but the discipline needed to adhere to the category for the collection usually prevents this. However, what may start out as collecting or preserving certain items may get out of control, which brings us to our next category: obsessive hoarding.
  • Hoarding – Hoarding is a mental health disorder. It is characterized by a persistent difficulty in getting rid of collected items, regardless of their value. Examples of hoarding are saving mostly useless items like mail, magazines, clothing, toys, cans, plastic bottles and bags, jars, old food, hardware, candy wrappers, bottle caps, and broken items. In summary, it is being unable to part with things that are not needed anymore. Homes may be filled to capacity, with only narrow pathways winding through stacks of items. Countertops, sinks, stoves, desks, stairways, and virtually all other surfaces are usually piled with stuff. And when there’s no more room inside, the clutter may spread to the garage, vehicles, yard, and other storage facilities. Left untreated, this behavior can lead to a variety of damaging emotional, social, financial, and physical effects—for the hoarder, their family members – even their neighbors.
  • Clutter – Clutter can be defined as anything that doesn’t belong in a space – whether it belongs elsewhere in the home, or it doesn’t belong in the home. People have stuff lying around their homes because they haven’t decided where to put them, and, for whatever reasons, choose not to deal with it. Clutter is an indication that a person has not taken control of their environment and decided what is and isn’t important to them. Clutter can also be created by holding onto items that are broken, no longer in use or that ought to be discarded. Clutter makes it very difficult to keep a home clean, and often attracts unwanted insects or rodents.
  • Squalor – Squalor is an extreme level of clutter and filth in an environment and often includes some form of hoarding. The environment is extremely unclean, cluttered, messy, and unhygienic due to accumulated dirt, grime, garbage, and waste material, along with mold, fungus, insects, and rodents. Rotting food, urine, excrement, and blood cause very strong odors, making the environment unbearable to even walk into and uninhabitable by government health standards.

While many of us might confess that our homes can become somewhat messy or cluttered from time to time, we usually address this before it becomes a problem. What is important to be on the lookout for are signs of obsessive collecting, significant clutter, hoarding, and lack of basic cleanliness and hygiene in the environment – whether in our own home or the home of a friend, neighbor, or family member. If you see signs of hoarding or squalor – even in the home of a stranger – it’s important to take action and get help sooner rather than later!