Published: Nov 11, 2010 12:31 AM EST
Updated: Nov 10, 2010 8:24 PM EST

LEE COUNTY, Fla. - Hoarding is a problem experts say is on the rise in our area. There have been several high profile cases in Southwest Florida over the past few months. Now, agencies here are joining forces to help people who struggle with collecting too much.

There's still a lot of mystery surrounding hoarding, but after a spike in cases, Lee County is launching a brand-new task force to tackle the growing problem.

"This is very frightening, it's insidious, and it's chronic," Stacey Cook-Hawk of Lee Mental Health said.

Filth stacked to the ceiling, animals overcrowding homes, and wall-to-wall clutter. In one case, a woman kept her dead mother inside the home for a year. All these pictures come from Lee County cases of hoarding.

"It's not new, but in this community, at the level it's been happening, it's bringing us all to the table to come up with some solutions," Cook-Hawk said Wednesday.

Lee County Animal Services, FMPD, the Sheriff's Office, and other agencies have formed a Hoarding Task Force to better address what they see as an untouched problem in Southwest Florida.

"Unless we have some sort of safety reason to get in there, it's hard to really identify what's going on and then the behavior continues, and the situation gets progressively worse," Cook-Hawk said.

The Task Force uses new strategies, offering mental health treatment and counseling, instead of just imposing fines when codes are broken.

"That's not the right road, in these types of instances. A lot of times, people need help. We're not out there to give tickets. We're not out there to do code violations. We're out there to provide a service, and to help people," Deputy Tom Schmidt of Lee County Sheriff's Office said Wednesday.

There's only a handful of reported cases of hoarding in Lee County, but experts believe that number to be significantly higher, since the habit is normally kept behind closed doors.

"It typically gets to the point of no return, and then people are forced to accept treatment. We want to figure out, how do we intervene sooner," Cook-Hawk said.

The Task Force is still trying to identify ways to get in and help hoarders before a home gets to the point where it's a health hazard. Their next meeting is scheduled in January.