How prevalent is hoarding in North America? According to Cory Chalmers, known for his role on A & E’s hit show Hoarders, five out of every 100 homes are affected.
“It’s huge,” says Chalmers, founder and CEO of Steri-Clean Inc., which responds to more than 1,500 biohazard and hoarding cases each year.
Demand for cleanup of hoarded homes is spurring his company to expand across North America, starting from the firm’s headquarters in southern California.
“We’re actually in the process of building a franchise to go across the nation and Canada so we believe there’s definitely a market there. You just have to know how to tap it.”
For environmental consultants and technicians, hoarding cleanup presents a dynamic career path. But the work isn’t for everyone, Chalmers says.
Unlike typical site visits to commercial, construction and industrial properties, there’s a significant psychological component to working with hoarders.
“Anyone can go into a house and carry out a box or trash, but getting the person to let go of it is where you’re going to find the biggest struggle,” he explains.
“The first thing to do is gain their trust, which is very hard to do sometimes. It can take an hour, it can take a week, it can take several months before we can even step foot in their house.”
Psychology of hoarding
Staff receive extensive training on the psychology of hoarding, along with regular refresher courses. At the same time, they’re also versed on the safety risks.
Biohazards include animal and human waste, trash, insects, rodents, mold, bacterial growth and used needles—not necessarily from drug users, but diabetics. The big risk though, is fire.
“There are so many combustibles. Usually the house is not being taken care of so there are electrical issues. They’re using space heaters. There’s stuff crammed under the water heater… It’s hard to get in and out of a house like that so if there is a fire, you’re going to be trapped.”
Some sites are so contaminated or dangerous, it takes weeks to repair damage before the resident can move back in. Emotions can run high as they struggle to let go of clutter.
“One of the team members that are on a hoarded site are responsible not only for working but monitoring the hoarder’s stress, anxiety and emotions, and changing the plan according to how all those things are.”
In 80 to 90 percent of cases, hoarding is caused by depression and post-traumatic stress, he explains. The person might have already had clutter problems, but a trauma in their lives causes it to get out of control.
The problem isn’t new. Chalmers has been doing this work for 17 years, but the Hoarders show has really raised awareness.
He says the demand for remediation companies is there, but working in the field requires “people that are very personable, compassionate, non-judgmental and very patient.”
Cory Chalmers is coming to Toronto! Hear his presentation at the Sites & Spills Expo on Nov 7-8.