When Amy retired a few years ago from a long career in the Army, she had a hard time adjusting to civilian life. With no family, limited income and failing health, she settled in a little trailer in a Mesa mobile home park.

To counter her loneliness she began taking in stray cats. They became her new family. And her family grew. She cared for her cats lovingly but her neighbors started complaining to the manager about all the cats roaming the park.

"One day I got a call from the park manager to see if we could help," said Linda Starr, outreach director for Assistance for Independent Living, a local agency that provides a variety of services that help elderly people stay in their homes. "He said he'd warned her several times about all the cats but she kept taking in more. He said he had no choice but to evict her unless someone would come in and solve the cat problem."

Starr, who has worked for years with the Arizona Hoarding Task Force, visited Amy and knew immediately that she had a hoarding problem. These are people who compulsively collect things, or animals, to provide a sense of security, Starr explained.

"She loved those cats and took really good care of them, but her neighbors were becoming increasingly hostile," Starr said. "Here is a woman who had devoted a large part of her life to serving her country. I felt really bad for her, but something had to be done. I counted more than 20 cats."

So Starr took action. She won Amy's trust, and her consent, to enlist the help of a no-kill animal shelter to remove all but four of the cats. But Starr also knew Amy would need emotional support to help her deal with the loss of most of her cat family. She called the Mesa Fire Department, which has a social worker who helps people deal with traumatic situations.

Although hoarding can be dangerous and unhealthy for the hoarder and a nuisance for neighbors, experts have learned that simply removing clutter or animals is only part of the answer, Starr said. It's critical that the emotional problem that led to the hoarding also is treated.

That comprehensive approached worked with Amy. Starr checks in with her regularly, and Amy has made friends with the animal shelter staff, who also stop by to check on her four cats. Thanks to the caring people at Assistance for Independent living, the fire department and the animal shelter, life is much better for Amy, her family, and her neighbors.

Assistance for Independent Living, which is affiliated with East Valley Adult Resources Inc., is one of 28 local agencies that receive funding from Mesa United Way. To read more "Faces of Need - and Hope" stories and to see how you can help, visit mesaunitedway.org. To learn more about AIL, visit www.evadultresources.org.

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