It's like living in a rubbish chute: Neighbours complain about stench from hoarders' flats in Chinatown block

SINGAPORE – For more than 10 years, residents on one of the higher floors in a Housing Board block in Chinatown have put up with the stench of rubbish in the corridor and lift lobby.

The smell is from a flat occupied by a couple. The husband is 75 years old and his wife is 65.

When The Straits Times visited the flat in Block 5 Banda Street last Tuesday, with the husband’s permission, heaps of rubbish were seen beside the couple’s bed and around the other living spaces.

There was space for only a single-file passageway leading to the kitchen, which was also filled with rubbish.

In this flat in Block 5 Banda Street occupied by an elderly couple, there was space for only a single-file passageway leading to the kitchen. ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

The trash included a large number of styrofoam food containers, empty instant coffee packets, empty bottles and plastic bags filled with unidentified items.

The husband, reclining on the bed filled with containers, plastic bags and a rice cooker, said in Mandarin: “We are throwing the items away.”

When asked where the trash had come from, he said his wife had left it there after finishing her meals.

His neighbour, who wanted to be known only as Mr Mohammad, 42, said he felt bad for the couple but was unhappy about the stench.

He said: “Whenever I open the door, the smell comes in straightaway. It’s not good for them and the neighbours. It’s like we are living in a rubbish chute.”

Mr Mohammad, who moved into the unit to live with his friend two years ago, said that cockroaches appeared frequently from the couple’s flat. He was also worried about fire hazards, especially since a neighbour next door has young children.

He said: “The whole place is filled with rubbish but the man still likes to play with his lighter every day. I am concerned the flat may catch fire one day.”

A man lies on his bed, which is surrounded by rubbish, at his Banda Street flat, on Sept 28, 2021. ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

Ms Fion Phua, founder of volunteer platform Keeping Hope Alive, said she and her volunteers visited the flat in April.

She said: “Our volunteers assured (the wife) they will get her permission before clearing anything, but she said she needed more time to sort out the items that are valuable and important to her.”

Ms Phua said she and the volunteers will visit Block 5 again in a few weeks. She added that a few flats in this block are facing a similar situation.

Another elderly woman, who is thought to be in her 90s, is believed to be hoarding items inside and outside her flat. Knocks on the door went unanswered when ST visited the flat.

Housewife Norsimah Achim, 61, who lives next door, said there was a small fire in the flat in 2014. She added that she was worried that it may happen again.

“I am now looking after my granddaughter, who is one year and four months old, and also my elderly mother, who is in her 80s and is disabled.

“If my son and daughter-in-law are not home, who can help me?”

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A Jalan Besar Town Council spokesman said residents are given a grace period to clear items blocking the common corridor. After that, the town council will arrange to have them removed.

“This is necessary as obstructions to the common corridor do not just inconvenience other residents but also pose a fire hazard,” said the spokesman.

A spokesman for Kreta Ayer-Kim Seng Citizens’ Consultative Committee said it will continue to work with agencies and community partners to provide support for the residents where needed.

Dr Kelvin Ng, a consultant at the Institute of Mental Health, said people hoard for a variety of reasons, and not all of them do so because of mental illness. He said: “People without mental illness may have a problem discarding items because of experiences with loss or stress in the past that cause them to have an emotional void, which they try to fill with the hoard.”

The trash included a large number of styrofoam food containers, empty instant coffee packets, empty bottles and plastic bags filled with unidentified items. ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

He added that underlying mental health issues, such as severe depression, may also cause some people to hoard.

Dr Ng advises family members to seek mental health assessment for their loved ones, not to stigmatise them and be gentle in their approach when raising the topic.

But if a continued soft approach goes nowhere, then a hard approach, such as turning to their grassroots leaders or community partners for assistance, may be necessary, especially if the hoarding has endangered themselves and others, he said.

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