TV show 'Hoarders' has helped create an industry -- cleaning up filthy, hazardous homes
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Organization is not usually a hoarder's strong suit, so when Patrick Conley arrived at a cleanup job to find small, labeled boxes amidst the chaos and trash, he was surprised. Then he opened the boxes. Inside each one was a dead cat -- more than 30 in all, each in a box marked with its name.
Mr. Conley is the marketing manager for Hadad Real Estate Services in Wilkinsburg, a company that cleans up after compulsive hoarders. In addition to the woman that he remembers as the "dead-cat lady," Mr. Conley and his company have emptied out and restored the homes of "dead-rat lady," "9,000-Heineken-bottle lady," "parrot lady" and dozens of other hoarders in Western Pennsylvania.
Mr. Conley likes to say that Hadad Services has been cleaning up after hoarders "since before hoarding was cool."
In the early 2000s, when the company's workers showed up at a home to find impenetrable rooms filled floor to ceiling with trash, they called it "critical care" or "health hazard" cleaning.
Then, in 2009, the A&E cable TV series "Hoarders" began broadcasting. Focusing on the cleanup of filthy, hazardous homes, the show quickly became one of the channel's most popular series, spawning copycats on TLC and even Animal Planet. More than 2 million people tuned in this May for the premiere of the fifth season of "Hoarders."
The show's popularity has not only changed the language -- it also helped create an industry.
While Hadad Services, which is owned by Mr. Conley's stepfather, Craig Edwards, mostly performs other restoration and cleaning services, the business has been increasingly taking on "hoarding jobs," which can net between $5,000 to $40,000 depending on the severity of the mess.
Though it can be difficult to get exact numbers because hoarding cleanup is usually offered as just one part of a company's services, there are indications that the industry is growing rapidly.
Craig Delaney, owner of biohazard cleanup company Dash Bio-Recovery, estimates that hoarding cleanup jobs now make up 30 percent of his South Fayette company's business -- a number he said has been greatly influenced by the popularity of reality television shows.
A year after the A&E show went on the air, he purchased the domain name hoardingpittsburgh.com, which redirects users to a page on Dash Bio-Recovery's website.
"The phones started ringing," Mr. Delaney said, after people saw shows like "Hoarders." "They realized there was a business they could turn to."
Hoarding jobs require specialized services that basic cleaning companies such as Merry Maids may not provide. Trash isn't collected in garbage bags but in 30-foot dumpsters, sometimes up to a dozen of them. Walls may need to be power-washed and soft furniture disposed of. And hoarders' homes can be filled with hazardous waste -- everything from hidden needles to animal and human feces. One cleanup specialist estimates that 10 percent of the houses he services do not have working toilets.
California-based hoarding cleanup company Steri-Clean has seen such an increase in business that it will start to sell franchises within the next three months. Its owner, Cory Chalmers, is regularly featured on "Hoarders."
Mr. Chalmers has expanded his company, which -- like Mr. Delaney's -- originally began as a crime-scene cleanup business, to include a second location in California as well as a hoarding help line, 1-800-HOARDERS, and the website 1800hoarders.com.
Mr. Chalmers said he frequently gets calls from businesses hoping to get into the industry. But many of them, despite interviews with potential clients, have yet to book a job and are wondering what they can do.
"We tell them it's actually about the way you interact with people," Mr. Chalmers said. "They need to build that trust, and until then, they're not going to get jobs."
The bottom line, he said, is this: While you might think you're ready to stomach the things you find in hoarders' homes, from dead cats on up, you may not be ready to deal with the most important aspect of the business -- the hoarders themselves.
"You have to develop a trust and a connection with these people," agreed Mr. Conley. "If they think you're just there to empty out their houses and tell them all their stuff is trash, you're not going to have success."
This is not about corporate efficiency and quick turnarounds. It can take time -- and a lot of empathy.
Hoarding cleanup businesses often vow to bring homes back to normal in a matter of days, Mr. Conley said. On "Hoarders," cleanup crews have just 48 hours for a job.
That can be off-putting to clients.
"Two days is not always the right pace," Mr. Conley said. Hadad's hoarding cleanup jobs can take days, weeks and even months, depending on the severity of the mess and the client's needs.
"Sometimes you know something needs to be thrown away, but the timing isn't right," Mr. Conley explained.
He recalled a particular chair in a client's home so caked with food and bodily fluids that the fabric no longer moved when somebody sat in it. Hadad waited until the last day to remove it, knowing it was among the client's most treasured possessions.
Embarrassment can also be a factor, Mr. Delaney said. Many clients are ashamed of the state of their home and have taken years to work up the courage to call a cleanup company.
"We make sure to tell them we've seen it all, there's nothing that can surprise us," he said. "We don't judge."
Hadad is careful to avoid putting the trash on the lawns, Mr. Conley said, in order to spare clients judgment from neighbors.
"You have to be a special kind of person," Mr. Chalmers explained. "At times, you're almost like a therapist."
In fact, hoarding is considered by many to be a psychological illness, similar in type to obsessive-compulsive disorder. There is a proposal to include it for the first time as a separate diagnosis, called "hoarding disorder," in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
Many hoarders also show symptoms of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder or personality disorders, and some suffer from delusions, like the woman that Hadad Services worked with who thought the hundreds of dead rats she kept in cages in her house were "hamsters."
"Almost all of them have gone through some kind of trauma that sent them into a downward spiral," said Mr. Conley, who lost both his father and stepfather over a two-year period when he was a teenager. "I think I have a unique ability to connect with these people because of my own past."
Hoarders are individuals, he stresses. "Every one is personal and unique," he said, and understanding clients' pasts and interests is an important step in the cleaning process.
When he learned one client was a huge fan of Elvis Presley, Mr. Conley filled a room with trinkets and cutouts of the King of Rock 'n' Roll, creating a safe space where she could stay while her home was emptied.
Mr. Delaney estimates that about half of Dash Bio-Recovery's cleanup jobs involve working directly with hoarders; the other half are assignments called in by family members and management companies looking for help with deceased hoarders' homes.
Some jobs are referred through the state Department of Health or the Department of Aging, usually after neighbors express concerns.
Mr. Conley remembers that dead-rat lady's next-door neighbor called to report dozens of rats "dancing on the counter tops" and "swinging on the drapes" of the house's kitchen. Other calls come from hoarders themselves who have realized their problem is out of control.
"It's just the tip of the iceberg," said Guillermo Cole, public information officer for the Allegheny County Health Department, of the 40 cases that the department handled in 2010. "Hoarders are very adept at hiding. There are probably far more cases that are never reported."
In Hadad's Wilkinsburg office, Mr. Conley and his family sifted through snapshots of houses that they had worked in over the years. Mr. Conley smiled fondly at a picture of a kitchen buried past the sink in mounds of trash and green glass bottles. It belonged, he explained, to 9,000-Heineken-bottle lady.
"She drank a lot," joked Karen Hadad-Edwards, Mr. Conley's mother, who also works at the business.
Ms. Hadad-Edwards knew that not only because of the empty bottles they had cleared from the woman's home; the two had also been out together for a celebratory drink one night. They were dancing to "New York, New York" when the woman grew angry and had to be taken home.
"She's one of those who I feel is probably back where she started," Ms. Hadad-Edwards said with a trace of disappointment.
Hadad Services offers its hoarding clients aftercare that allows the company to return weekly to their homes as a kind of maid service. Most don't have the money, or the motivation, to take the company up on it.
Just then, Mr. Conley got a text message from a friend: "Do you do really nasty cleanouts? Perhaps on the verge of biohazard?"
Mr. Conley laughed. "That's us."
First Published July 1, 2012 12:00 am