“Hoarding in Plain Sight” by David Preston

This picture was sent to me by a reader. It shows a woman who camps out at the bus stop in front of a Seattle bank every day, along with all her crap. She’s a textbook “bag lady.”


Although it’s possible that this woman is homeless, it’s not likely. She doesn’t panhandle, and she doesn’t appear to be suffering from exposure to the elements. She probably has a home of some kind nearby. She may even be wealthy. My grandpa was one of the richest men in his little Midwestern town, but he worked in a greasy machine shop and went around town dressed like a tramp. (I always said they’d have thrown him out of the bank if he hadn’t owned it.)

We all know about people who hoard things in private, but why do some people choose do it in public? Is it a form of senile dementia, or can it afflict younger people as well? In fact, I know a young guy who also does this. He’s homeless, too. He collects random junk and pushes it around in a train of shopping carts. A mutual friend asked him: “Why do you lug all this stuff around with you?” and he said: “Because other people need it. People will come up to me and say: ‘Have you got an old toaster that works? Or a bicycle wheel?’ And if I’ve got it, I’ll give it to them.”

–That’s an example of highly skewed thinking. But full-on dementia? No. But now that I think of it, the hoarding may have something to do with his homelessness. He might be able to afford a small apartment, or a room in a house, but if he can’t keep his junk there, he doesn’t want it. Like I said . . . skewed.

Back to the lady in the pic. The people at the bank don’t bother her, and neither does Metro, even though she’s monopolizing one of their bus stops. She has no legal right to be there and if they shooed her off it wouldn’t really hurt her; she’d just go somewhere else. The bank manager may be under the impression that she’s homeless and impoverished, and he’s probably afraid of the bad vibe that might result from telling her to move along. (Such is power of the bleeding heart lobby in this town.) If I were the bank manager, here’s what I’d do. I’d approach this lady with an offer of help. (Are you homeless? Do you have family in town? Are you getting the medical care you need?) If she took me up on the offer, the problem of her camping out would be resolved and I’d have a good feeling, knowing that I’d helped out a soul in distress. If she refused the help – which is, quite frankly, the likelier possibility – I’d say, OK, I’m sorry I can’t be of assistance, but I need to let you know that you can’t loiter here. If that was the case, I’m sure she would move, and though I’d feel bad for her personally, I wouldn’t feel guilty about my role, because I’d know that I’d tried to help, but she’s refused my offer.

I’m guessing that many people – friends, relatives, kind strangers – have offered to take this woman to see a doctor, but that she’s turned them all down. Or perhaps she’s been to the doctor but she simply refuses to take her medications. Like the majority of untreated mentally ill people, she probably has no insight into her condition or its consequences. (There’s nothing wrong with ME!) Absent some compulsion to change, she’ll keep lugging her stuff on the street until she gets too sick or decrepit to do so. When her health forces her to change her accustomed pattern of behavior, she’ll become disoriented, go into a tailspin, and die.

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