Dan Reynolds cringes whenever he watches Hoarders, on A&E, or Hoarding: Buried Alive on TLC. The cleanup crews on those shows have it all wrong, he says.
Reynolds should know. He, along with partner Mike Frakes, owns Minooka, Ill.-based Chicago Crime Scene Cleanup. While the company specializes, as its name suggests, in cleaning up crime scenes, it also works with hoarders throughout the Chicago area, helping them clean the mounds of newspapers, trash bags, empty cans, battered furniture and ancient clothes from their houses.
Cleanup crews should never throw children's toys from an attic onto a front lawn, something Reynolds has seen happen on both Hoarders and Hoarding. That might make for good TV, Reynolds says, but it's bad for the family living in that house.
"People need their dignity. Throwing their possessions out a window isn't helping them keep their dignity," Reynolds said. "These people are not slobs. They are not lazy. They have a disorder."
I'd been thinking about hoarding ever since my wife brought home a book from our local public library, Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things. The book, by Randy Frost and Gail Steketee is filled with interviews of hoarders, people who can only travel from one room to the next by fashioning tunnels that snake between towers of paper, books, magazines and boxes of clothing. Frost and Steketee came to this conclusion: Hoarders assign the same value to every possession they have. They can't separate what's important from what's not.
Reynolds has seen this. Not only does he help hoarders throughout the Chicago area clean their homes, he has two family members who struggle with their own hoarding disorders. Chicago Crime Scene Cleanup also cleans some of the several Chicago-area homes that have fallen into foreclosure.
I spoke with Reynolds earlier this week as he was heading off to an appointment. I wanted to know what it was like to work with hoarders and to help them reclaim their homes. To his credit, Reynolds refused to delve into sensationalism. I'm sure he could have provide me with some real horror stories. Instead, he talked a lot about how he and the technicians Chicago Crime Scene Cleanup employs works with hoarders.
The key, Reynolds said, is to understand that hoarders won't change their ways until they're ready. Family members may stage dramatic interventions on the TV shows. In real life, though, that doesn't work. Even if hoarders do manage to empty their homes, they'll simply fill them back up again.
Once hoarders are ready, Reynolds and his crews work with them. They encourage hoarders to make their own decisions.
"Their kids may be grown. They may still have the clothes that these kids wore when they were in high school," Reynolds said. "We'll ask them, 'Would you rather keep your $100 sweater or your son's tattered sweater that's only good for a cleaning rag?' They'll usualy decide to keep their sweater and throw out the ratty one. After a while, these decisions get easier for them. We like by the time that we leave to have them making their own decisions."
Hoarding cleanup jobs can take a long time to complete. Reynolds said that these jobs can run from a week to six months to a year, depending on how much clutter homes have. Reynolds usually likes to bring along three or four technicians to help complete the job.
The work can be hard, especially when Chicago Crime Scene Cleanup is called in to clean a residence in which the hoarder does not want to be helped. This doesn't happen often. When it does, it's usually a condo owner whose garbage-filled unit has attracted pests that infiltrate nearby units or generates odors that filter into a condo building's common areas. Reynolds recently finished a court-ordered job like this. It was a challenge.
"The people that we are really trying to help want nothing to do with us in these cases," Reynolds said. "Everything is a fight. 'Why di dyo throw out all my empty pill bottles?' That kind of thing. You still treat these people with compassion and respect. But you have to be firm. You do have the right to be there whether they agree with you or not. You are taking care of a job that needs to get done."
Reynolds finds the work rewarding, though. He still receives letters, for instance, from a hoarder whom he helped a few years back in the Chicago area. The home was a beautiful three-story residence. On every floor, though, three feet of trash reached into the air. About 15 cats crawled through it. By the time Chicago Crime Scene Cleanup finished the job, it had removed about 110 yards of trash out of the house.
The letters from this homeowner are a treat. She'll tell Reynolds about painting a room a new color. That's something, he says, that never could have happened without the help of his company.