You can learn a lot from experts who deal with hoarders.
Among other things:
▪ Your collection of sports trophies isn’t hoarding — unless it’s taken over a room, and your kitchen, and your bath.
▪ Being obsessive compulsive does not necessarily doom you to hoarding.
▪ Marie Kondo’s bestselling decluttering book, “Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” holds no secrets for a TV expert who’s dealt with families’ real-life nightmares for decades.
Those were just three bits of experience shared by Cory Chalmers, CEO of Steri-Clean and one of the expert consultants on the A&E network TV show “Hoarders.”
That’s the show — heading into its 10th season — that makes you want to toss everything you own after watching one episode.
Chalmers and Erica DiMiele, Steri-Clean’s Washington franchise owner, recently spoke to The News Tribune as part of the promotion of the company’s first Northwest branch, in Mukilteo. It will serve the entire region for now.
The national company handles biohazard cleanups (crime scenes, for example) and has the tools to professionally disinfect areas exposed to highly contagious surface germs (norovirus, for example.)
It also deals with a lot of hoarding cases. From everywhere.
“Snohomish, Olympia, Fife, Puyallup, Lynnwood...” Chalmers listed recent calls.
“... Yelm, Yakima, Spokane, Lacey, Spanaway, Tacoma...” DiMiele added.
Just what is hoarding?
“The easiest way to define it is when the stuff — trash, animals, $100 bills — interferes with functionality of the home,” Chalmers said.
If you can’t cook in your kitchen, or use a bathtub or sleep in your bed, and generally just can’t let go of stuff, then you’re in the Hoarding Zone.
At many hoarding scenes, Chalmers said, “they are 90 percent full of Amazon or QVC boxes.” Often, the boxes aren’t even open, or if they are, they’re adding to the mass of stuff.
How bad can it get?
“Well,” DiMiele said, “there are five levels of hoarding and the most extreme is Level 5. I saw a Level 5 where the woman was living in a home covered in cat excrement, 5 inches everywhere on every surface. She had 30 cats, which was 30 too many.”
What triggers hoarding?
“Typically, there are five or six underlying issues causing it,” Chalmers said, “so that’s why it’s so difficult to treat.”
Hoarders “don’t just like ‘stuff,’ ” he noted. They’re often reacting to a major trauma, which starts the cascade into cluttered chaos.
“Death, divorce, children moving away ... you lose your identity of keeping a neat house,” he said, adding that dementia also can play a role.
Many times “they miss someone, so they fill their house to the point people can’t come in,” Chalmers said. But “stuff won’t replace what they’re missing in life.”
About half of the inquiries to the business come from hoarders themselves, Chalmers and DiMiele said.
“It takes a lot to hide their secret and try to live a normal world,” Chalmers said.
What about the calls from apartment managers, neighbors, relatives, code enforcement managers?
Those types of interventions rarely work, Chalmers said.
“It’s like taking a bottle from an alcoholic and not changing the behavior,” he said.
The company’s Mukilteo office consists of four crew members, an office assistant and DiMiele. It’s been busy and “booked every week” since its opening Aug. 1, she said.
Cleanup work is more than just coming in and tossing everything into a Dumpster.
“We recommend cleaning services, therapy and support groups,” Chalmers said. “Otherwise, we keep going back.”
To help a hoarder, he recommends learning what the person is passionate about and focusing his or her life on that.
“Do they like to cook, sew, crafts,” he said. “... we remind them that’s something they can do again if they regain the room in their house.”
While individuals can overcome it, the bottom line is hoarding in society “won’t ever go away,” Chalmers said.
“And society has made it easier than ever to become a hoarder, with garage sales, flea markets ... we have credit, 99 cent stores ...” he trailed off.
When Chalmers started his business nearly 23 years ago, he was working as a paramedic and firefighter and did crime scene cleanup.
“The family (on scene) would be hysterical and wondering, ‘Who’s going to clean this up?’” he said. “It bothered me and no one had answers, so I told my wife, ‘I don’t know if there is a business model in this ....”
Turns out there was, and now Steri-Clean operates nationwide.
For DiMiele, the path to this work started with being a professional organizer.
“I saw the show years ago and thought there has to be some sort of industry for this,” she said. “I got bored with organizing closets and had it in the back of my mind to work with hoarders.”
Now she is the Northwest Steri-Clean representative and the newest featured cleanup expert on “Hoarders.”
Chalmers and DiMiele believe the show has brought the issue of hoarding out of the shadows.
For that, Chalmers is proud of the work.
“It is the one thing that brought more exposure to this problem,” he said. “In the mid-2000s, no one knew ... it was just thought of as cat ladies or pack rats. We started something that brought awareness.”
More details, how to get help
hoarders.com has more information on services.
hoardingcleanup.com offers a list of therapists by state.
Cost: No base price. There’s an in home-consultation to assess volume and how long it will take to remove, then cost based on that.
The company does not facilitate garage sales. “Usually hoarders hold on to what doesn’t sell. We call it “churning the hoard,” said Erica DiMiele, Steri-Clean’s Washington franchise owner.
It has estate sale resources for referral.