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Fire that kills 25-year-old man sheds light on the dangers of hoarding, officials say

Posted at 5:22 PM, Mar 20, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-20 18:22:38-04

MILWAUKEE — The scene was quite different Saturday afternoon, as crews cleaned and boarded up the home that was engulfed in flames early in Saturday morning, which ultimately led to the death of a 25-year-old man.

"I went over there to look and flames were shooting out the side of the house," said David Colon.

David Colon is still trying to wrap his head around exactly what happened Saturday morning after he arrived at his sister's home to do some construction, only to find that a house was going up in flames just a few doors down.

"I parked my van, I was going to do a job and then some Spanish guy yelled at me in Spanish the house is on fire," said Colon.

The blaze, which broke out on the second floor of the home, happened around 8:30 a.m. in the area of South 15th street and Oklahoma Avenue.

"I sympathize with the lady that lost her son," said Colon.

Fire officials say hoarding conditions inside the home made it very difficult for them to get to the victim.

"You can't feel the floor, you're trying to find the fire, and if there are any victims. And it's hard to tell when you're trying to wade through all of that stuff," said Deputy Fire Chief Dewayne Smoots with the Milwaukee Fire Department.

"It is just heartbreaking that maybe this person wasn't able to get the resources," said Carla Alejo, director of the Catholic Charities Hoarding, Intervention & Treatment Program

The tragedy now putting a spotlight on the dangers of hoarding, and the people that struggle with the disorder.

"Hoarding is not about the stuff, it is truly a mental health diagnosis," said Alejo. "People with hoarding disorder usually suffer from diagnoses such as depression, they suffer from OCD. They usually have had traumatic events."

To put this issue into context: According to the American Psychiatric Association, hoarding affects between 2-6% of the population. And here in Milwaukee, Alejo says within just a year they can serve up to 150 people.

"People call us every day and we have waiting lists for our services. With the pandemic, I think those numbers are going to grow significantly," said Alejo.

That's why Alejo says it's critical that everyone continues to have discussions about mental health and hoarding disorders in order to end the stigma and get people the help they need.

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