Life

The Secret Lives of Hoarders: What I Learned as a Professional Home Cleaner

“It seems to me like all those items fill a void in their life.”
September 1, 2021, 3:34am
Professional house cleaner who cleans hoarders home
For illustrative purposes only. Photo: cerro_photography, Getty

One thing I’ve learned while cleaning hoarders’ homes professionally is that many of them love cats

I always see forsaken felines navigating mountains of homebound garbage but almost never other pets. I don’t know why—and I’m sure there are hoarders who like other animals—but it does fit the stereotypical image of a suburban introvert with a messy house. The thing with cats is they leave a horribly pungent smell that wafts through the entire house. In the worst cases, I’ve had to replace entire floorings soaked in cat pee.

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Another thing I learned is that some people only hoard specific items. I recently cleaned the house of a man who mostly accumulated food. He had completely normal amounts of clothing in his wardrobe but I trudged through his living room waist-deep in piles of leftover food containers and liquor bottles. 

I used about 120 trash bags when I cleaned up that house, 20 just for human feces. Instead of getting a plumber when the toilet clogged up, my client just started pooping in a corner of his bedroom, and so did his cats. It turned out, he had multiple sclerosis and was battling alcoholism. You probably wouldn’t be able to tell, though. On the outside, he was a regular dude working a nine-to-five. Except every day when he came home, he would drink a lot and live among mountains of pizza boxes. 

Our houses often are an intimate portrait of our inner lives—that’s lesson number three.

“Our houses often are an intimate portrait of our inner lives.”

About a year ago, I dropped out of college and started a cleaning business. We clean regular residences but also offer services specifically for hoarder homes, something barely anyone else does where I live in Illinois.

I wasn’t really expecting a huge demand for those services but when hoarders’ requests came streaming in, I realized: Behind freshly mowed lawns and tidy suburban houses, hoarding lurks as a secret in these unassuming neighborhoods.

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Entering these hoarders’ homes can be quite anticlimactic. You probably won’t encounter the onslaught of dust bunnies and trash mountains where missing cats are found years later as skeletons (remember that episode of Hoarders?), though I’ve certainly seen a good number of those types before. You may be equally disappointed to find out that most of the hoarders I’ve dealt with are not nearly as difficult and defensive as those on reality TV. A lot of the time, they’re pretty laid-back folks who just want to get help with their overflowing shelves.

I came to realize that hoarding can affect anyone, certainly not only those who are grappling with scarcity, as commonly believed. Hoarders and their homes can look very different from one another. I have wealthy clients with “organized hoarding,” possibly because they have housekeepers who regularly help to pack and conceal the accumulating items. One woman I met had a huge home that was by all accounts tidy and well-maintained but had cupboards neatly lined to the brim with rows upon rows of hoarded stuff. We spent a full day helping her decide which items she could part with.

People with less money, on the other hand, are not as equipped to stave off visual evidence of their hoarding problem. They have neither dedicated housekeepers nor an abundance of space to hide their things. As every corner of the house slowly becomes a compulsive buffet of random objects, one day they find themselves literally unable to live in their own homes. 

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As much as I want to tell my clients to “just stop hoarding,” I know it’s not that simple. It’s really difficult for them, actually. 

One client had a basement full of car show trophies and an elderly couple had ledges full of little trinkets. They all had a hard time letting go of these seemingly insignificant possessions that held so much sentimental value.

In my interactions with real-life hoarders, I had the chance to peel back the sensationalized outer layer of the condition—you know, the grotesque, reality TV visuals—and learn about the deeply human struggle of a crippling habit. A lot of the hoarders I’ve met share similar backstories.

“In my interactions with real life hoarders, I had the chance to peel back the sensationalized outer layer of the compulsive condition—you know, the grotesque, reality TV visuals—and learn about the deeply human struggle of a crippling habit.”

Many of them have dealt with trauma, with the passing of a loved one being an especially common trigger. I met a woman who had lost her son—the only family she had—in an ATV crash. It was like she just gave up on everything after that. Trash piled up, she obsessed over her son’s belongings, and started collecting anything that would remind her of him.

Then there are those whose parents were hoarders, too. This is especially common in rich neighborhoods. One of my clients would hoard clearance items despite being a high-earning doctor. This was a habit she acquired as a kid growing up in a low-income household, she told me, with a mother who also hoarded clearance groceries. For her, living in abundance as an adult means buying lots of things at the supermarket that she never could as a kid.

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Wealthier clients, like this doctor, usually get the help they need before they snowball, working with their therapists to gradually leave their hoarding mentalities behind. Meanwhile, hoarders who lack professional support find it difficult to break the pattern or recognize that hoarding is a problem at all. These people put it off until they just can’t live with it anymore. Most of the time, this is where I come in to give their houses a facelift.

Unfortunately, I can’t always promise these homeowners a quick fix to their cluttered houses. Besides the massive amounts of items to sort through, we also deal with toxic waste like feces or dead animals. Between the weeklong cleaning job and getting the proper equipment to scrub down houses, working on hoarders’ homes can get very expensive very fast. 

There are folks who can’t afford cleaning costs despite desperately needing our help. It’s heartbreaking, but I try not to let my emotions get in the way. I have employees who live off my company’s income, and we just can’t afford to pick up cleaning jobs for less money. That’s a really tough spot to be in sometimes.

In most cases, the hoarders I work with are very embarrassed about the state of their homes.

I showed up at one client’s house greeted by a cautious sliver of opening at her door. She was trying so hard not to reveal her cluttered living room to an unknown guest. That was until she realized that I was there to view her home and give an estimated price for the cleaning job. While she showed me her disarrayed heaps of items around the house, she told me that her daughter had packed a bag and left because the place was becoming too much for her to bear. By then, they hadn’t heard from her for six months. I’ve also met clients’ families who make me promise not to tell anyone—like residential management teams and nosy neighbors—about the state of their houses. This embarrassment may well be the doing of reality shows that make a spectacle of clutter porn and typecast hoarders as outlandish characters.

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Sometimes, family members hire me to do secret cleanups while the hoarder is away. Once, a woman engaged me after sending her hoarding parent on a vacation. As cloak-and-dagger as that sounds, our covert operation was a pretty undramatic affair that saw us simply organizing her belongings—you can’t just discard hoarders’ things without their consent because you never know how much they mean to them.

When I work with hoarders directly, though, things get a little more complicated. I often have to negotiate with them what things we can dispose of and try to whittle down as much as I can. It can be an intense emotional trip for them. Sometimes they cry or get physically sick when they can’t let go of certain items.

Observing their anguish from the outside, it seems to me like all those items fill a void in their life. And once you start throwing them away, you open that void again. This can be painfully difficult, especially for the people who have lost someone in their life.

“Observing their anguish from the outside, it seems to me like all those items fill a void in their life. And once you start throwing them away, you open that void again.”

That’s why, as heated as these negotiations can get, I try not to argue with them too much. Ultimately, I can’t rid them of their attachment to piles of inanimate objects. I’m a cleaner, not a therapist, and I can’t help people who can’t overcome their issues. 

Our homes reflect a great deal about our mental states.

This may be why, when hoarder homes are cleaned out, I’m often greeted with exclamations of relief: “I feel like I can breathe now,”  “I feel happy,” and “I feel like I can really start living my life again.” 

As difficult as it is to break out of hoarding patterns, it’s not impossible. At least one client I’ve kept in touch with has overcome it. The key, it seems, is a support group—whether it’s your family, friends, a licensed therapist, or other hoarders. 

The last, and perhaps most important, thing I’ve learned about hoarders is this: Hoarding is often a mental health issue that manifests in many forms, and we should all recognize it as that. It shouldn’t be reduced to crusty heaps we ogle at for entertainment, and it certainly shouldn’t be something that people are ashamed of. Destigmatizing it will go a long way for those struggling in secret.