Spencer Harris was a hoarder.
Outside, Harris, 74, lived a social and active life filled with friends, hobbies and vacations. But inside his Menlo Park apartment, newspapers and boxes stacked to the ceiling, mold climbed up the walls and the kitchen floor sagged beneath the weight of his belongings. He referred to his collection as "his identity."
Until one day last May. While Harris was on vacation, police entered his apartment with the landlord after receiving a concerned call from a neighbor. The landlord served Harris with an eviction notice, booked a Pod storage compartment and told Harris he could return to the building once his belongings were sorted and discarded.
According to San Francisco Mental Health Association Executive Director Eduardo Vega, Harris' tragic situation highlights a common misconception about hoarding and cluttering -- a misconception that, Vega argues, may be exacerbated by the recent popularity of TV shows like "Hoarders."
"It's good that these issues are being brought to light and demystified," Vega told The Huffington Post. "But the dumpster approach does not solve the problem. It's dramatic to see the physical transformation, but that doesn't help the people in the long term."
According to Vega, the "dumpster approach" can leave those who struggle with hoarding and cluttering feeling overwhelmed and dehumanized, and can be unbearably traumatic.
"The thing that really works is therapy," said Vega. "We see the best results with a combination of cognitive based therapy with a focus on hoarding and cluttering, and daily approaches to avoiding further clutter."
Thus, with this week's 14th annual International Conference on Hoarding and Cluttering, hosted in Millbrae, Vega and MHASF aim to shed light on the disorder and proactive solutions.
"We invite landlords, advocates, local authorities and people with these issues, so there is a very broad dialogue about the problem and strategies for impact," he said. "The conference also puts a human face on the problem, saying, 'hey, these are real people.'"
Though MHASF has been hosting conferences for 14 years, this one marks a special milestone: for the first time, hoarding will get its own category in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
"On Friday our speaker will even be the author of that section," said Vega. "It's very exciting."
For the next two days, hoarders and clutterers, as well as advocates and supporters, will gather from around the world for sessions titled "Our Complicated Relationship (With Stuff)," "A Community Based Response to Hoarding" and "Working with Professional Organizers."
"We're offering the tools and skills that people need to manage this problem," said Vega.
Visit the Mental Health Association San Francisco website for information about the International Conference on Hoarding and Cluttering, and watch a clip from TLC's show "Hoarding" below:
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article stated that Spencer Harris said, "The thing that really works is therapy." This quote was actually taken from Eduardo Vega, not Harris.