One of the few television shows I watch is Hoarders – a program produced by A&E Television Networks that highlights attempts at cleaning up homes. The homes profiled on the show are not your average households. Instead they are structures completely filled with objects accumulated by people who do not want to give them up. The reason I enjoy watching this show so much is because at my last job I dealt with these types of homes on a regular basis. So while the show never really presents the city's or county's side of the story, I can just imagine what each agency has gone through in dealing with each one of these. And because the show has made me realize the general public was probably not aware that these homes are in every community, I thought I would relate a few of my experiences to share the agency's side of the story.
My First Hoarder Home
Through my childhood, I had been in a few homes where the owners were probably borderline hoarders. And during the years I dated, I had the unfortunate experience of having a boyfriend take me to visit one of his friends where I barely tolerated a few cockroaches crawling over us. But none of this prepared me for what I would experience as a building inspector for a city. I think the first time I encountered a hoarder house was when the mayor told the superintendent of public works and I to check on a home that had been deeded to the city by the homeowners because they could no longer care for it. From the outside, you would never have known what to expect inside, which is often how hoarder homes present themselves. But as soon as we opened the back door, there was no denying this was no normal home. The smell is always what hits you right away – something that can't really be conveyed on the television show. In this particular case, we had to walk through layers of wet newspapers supporting a full growth of mushrooms – another experience difficult to properly convey over TV. As we entered the kitchen, garbage and debris cascaded down from the kitchen counter over the table to the floor. At this point, I chose not to go any further. We tore that home down. And that experience was also the one that encouraged me to avoid eating at one of the local restaurants where the woman who had lived in that home worked. Aside from the absolute absence of running water and functioning bathroom facilities in her home, I had learned from one of the neighbors that one day when he drove the woman to work, a cockroach had crawled out of her sleeve into his car. So that experience makes me wonder when I watch the show if any of these people work in restaurants.
The Habitual Hoarder
One of the next hoarder homes we dealt with involved an abandoned building used to store a hoarder's possessions. This one took a while to deal with because the woman who owned it refused to clean the place up. After years of handling complaints from neighbors and years of taking the owner to court, we were finally able to post the condemnation on the building. Only after the court decided the place was condemned and had to be torn down did the owner end up deeding the property to the city. We immediately demolished the building, but unfortunately not before the owner had the chance to move all her stuff to another site in town. Some time after the first place was torn to the ground, our fire chief heard a story about how this woman had been allowed to store a significant amount of stuff in the gymnasium of an old school in our city. So we had the owner of the old school let us in to see for ourselves. It's amazing how much stuff you can cram into an elementary school gym. The additional space had definitely provided her the ability to expand her holdings – it must have been a hoarder's dream. But the problem with her storing the stuff here was the owner had set aside space in the building to house homeless people and had done so without following building codes. So I imagine from our fire chief's perspective, all that stuff presented a significant fire hazard and danger to people who were already at risk in that location. We told the building owner he had to immediately remove everything from the gym or lose his renters. This did result in getting the mess cleaned up. Unfortunately he also was supposed to bring the building into code compliance and never did. So in the end, he lost the homeless shelter anyway. Based on this experience, I always wonder if the hoarders on these shows just move along to hoard again somewhere else.
A Study in Entomology
Another home we focused on due to numerous complaints was one we chose to inspect as a group – the city attorney, myself, the mayor, and the police chief. The main memory I have of this home is that there were so many different types of bugs crawling everywhere. Many I had never seen before in my life, even at the zoo! If I hadn't been so worried about them crawling on me, I might have stopped to study them better. This was also the home where they had removed their kitchen counter and replaced it with OSB – not a recommended material for this purpose. And during my time in the basement, I could not help but think of the urban legend regarding this family. According to local and completely unsubstantiated gossip, they had kept their grandfather in the basement for six months after he died so they could continue to collect his social security check. Never really heard a similar experience on the Hoarder's show, but I am always wondering if they will find someone dead under all that junk!
Make Sure to Bring a Change of Clothes
Although all of the hoarder experiences are unpleasant to deal with, this one was particularly sad. The local mental health organization had asked me to inspect the home of one of their clients. They were worried about the condition of the home, and they were right on target with their concern. This was the only home where I had to immediately take a shower and throw away some of my clothes after my inspection. I don't believe there was a working bathroom so the family had been using the entire bathroom to deposit their wastes. And they had animals who had used all the rest of the rooms to deposit their wastes. Pools of urine were located randomly throughout the home while cockroaches crawled in bright daylight over every surface. It was the only home I had been in where the bugs didn't even bother to get out of your way when you walked. While this home was bad, we had no complaints about it other than the request to check on it. And the owner had no where else to live so it was one of the few where I filed my report, and it didn't go any further. As for the show, I have not really seen one yet where the owner has more severe mental impairments, and I wonder how other agencies deal with hoarders who do.
Don't Open That Door!
This one could have also been labeled a habitual hoarder home. Unfortunately I had not made the connection between the owner of this home and the home she had previously owned and lost to a fire. If I had, I might have been better prepared for what we would find. Again, we inspected this home as a group because of complaints from neighbors. While we could make it into the kitchen, we really could not walk through the living room or the rest of the home – it was completely filled with garbage bags and other debris. However, there was a door near the entrance into the living room, and I made the mistake of opening it to see what was in there.What we discovered was the woman had not only hoarded objects, she had hoarded her urine and feces in five-gallon buckets that were neatly stacked from floor to ceiling in this room. It was probably the only time inspecting a hoarder home where I thought I would throw up, but it could have also been because I was pregnant at the time. This is definitely an experience difficult to convey over the television – nothing quite prepares you for entering a room with five-gallon buckets holding a multi-year collection of urine and feces. Oh, and regarding her previous house – according to the firemen, while fighting the fire there, they had found a hoard of urine in glass bottles in the walls of that home.
The Hoarder Home I Never Inspected
The last hoarder home story I will share is one I have no first hand knowledge of – only stories from one of our utility workers, the DCFS representative, and the demolition contractor. This home had been on our radar for some time due to the numerous complaints from neighbors. I had only inspected the outside because the family would have never allowed me in. They had no running water because their water was off due to unpaid bills. Because our utility person had to go in to shut off the water, we knew the basement was filled with garbage bags. DCFS had been involved on a regular basis because the father was alledgedly having sexual relations with his 14-year old daughter and their four-year old was sleeping outside on the concrete sidewalk and had been observed jumping off their garage into the swimming pool in the backyard. Other comments I had heard were there were so many cockroaches in this place the bugs were layered in several colonies on the walls. Of course, like the woman in a story above, the father worked at a local restaurant. Unfortunately it was one of my favorite restaurants so I would call first to see if he was working, and if he was, I would just not go that night. Eventually our only salvation in dealing with this home was that they had a mortgage. Once the bank that held the mortage found out about the condition of the home, they took possession, forced the family to move, and had the house torn down. The story I heard from the demolition contractor was he found a dead racoon or something similar to that under the little boy's bed. Because of our experience with this, I always wonder on the Hoarder show if the owner has a mortgage, and if so, why banks are not more involved in the process.
Hoarder Homes are Everywhere
I could go on and on with experiences of dealing with other homes, but those are fairly representative of what our city of only 10,000 dealt with on a regular basis. While people watching the Hoarders show cannot really experience the smells and feelings you get from being in close proximity to such conditions, they also don't hear about the time and money and work invested by the communities in which these homes are located. Our city spent time and money inspecting these homes, firefighters and water department employees were regularly exposed to dangerous conditions, we incurred legal fees, our citizens had to put up with the nuisances – usually smells, and many times our city ended up spending the money to demolish the structures because they had become unlivable. I am not sure if we had more than our share of hoarder homes where I used to work, but I do know hoarder homes are everywhere – it's not just an unusual occurrence profiled by a reality show. And more times than not, you would never be able to pick out the hoader homes in your community just from driving by. While these homes might make for interesting programming on TV, the side of the story not told is the potentially significant drain on public resources and community funds.