The Horrors of Hoarding

Features - Cover Story

Hoarders’ habits aren’t just disturbing; they can be outright dangerous for the courageous PMPs who try to help.

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September 21, 2016
Donna DeFranco
Illustration by Cliff Mills

It’s not just reality TV fodder: Hoarding is real-life drama that takes a heavy toll on people and their homes. According to the American Psychiatric Association, an estimated 2 to 5 percent of the population suffers from hoarding disorder. These individuals have difficulty parting with possessions and “stuff” of all kinds. The resultant clutter becomes disruptive to everyday living and creates ideal conditions for pest infestations.

Chris Crone of CNJ Pest Management in New York City, who finds hoarding mostly in multi-family buildings, describes a typical scenario: “One of the apartments we’ve treated is a unit occupied by an elderly gentleman with limited mobility who has been living in his apartment, and accumulating junk, for 40 years. He was staying in the living room because he had basically walled himself off from other areas of the unit with stack upon stack of books, papers and other clutter.”

Travis Morton of Morton’s Pest Control in Huntsville, Ala., finds more hoarding in houses. “We walk into some very nasty homes,” he shares. “Probably the worst I’ve seen belonged to an elderly customer who wasn’t throwing anything away. His house was full of garbage — rotting food, clutter, you name it. It was clear he couldn’t take care of the place. His recliner was overrun with bed bugs.”

The issue is obvious: How do you get the residence into shape so that pest management efforts have a chance to work?

“Dealing with hoarding is like peeling an onion; there are many layers to contend with before you even start to think about pest control,” says Ted Burgess III of Burgess Companies in West Bridgewater, Mass. “You have to ask a lot of questions: How can the hoarding conditions be eliminated? Should we contact the landlord, supervisor or office? Does the resident have support from family or an agency? Is the resident capable of coordinating the effort to address the hoarding conditions?”

HEY, BUGS: Y-YOU IN THERE? PMPs who treat hoarders’ homes should do so with the utmost caution and care. In addition to pests, these residences can harbor dangers ranging from the physical risks of climbing over and through mounds of litter to the health risks posed by unsanitary conditions.

“We have walked into situations where the homeowner collects guns or other weapons; if you step on the wrong pile, you can get a sword through your boot. Or maybe you have to climb over mountains of unstable garbage to complete your inspection,” says James Molluso of Northeastern Exterminating in New York City. “That’s why, in circumstances when we know we’re dealing with a hoarder, we gear up in PPE (personal protective equipment): boots, gloves, respirators and sometimes hazmat suits. If the hoarding is a surprise we discover on arrival, then we just do the best we can to inspect while doing the ‘don’t breathe through your nose’ trick.”

Educating customers about the need for minimizing harborage is the first step in resolving their hoarding-related pest issues. Often, this conversation is exactly the wake-up call they need.
James Molluso, Northeastern Exterminating

Cecilia Nieves’ team suits up for duty as well. “We wear Kevlar suits, duct taping the ankles to prevent entry points,” says the project manager of Bed Bug Prep NYC, a company that works in collaboration with PMPs to prepare homes, including hoarders’ homes, for bed bug work. “We double up on gloves, too, often using work gloves over the latex ones.”

CUSTOMER STRUGGLES. Aside from the physical challenges of treating a hoarder’s home, pest management professionals face the psychological challenges of their customers. When someone’s comfort level is to live in a constant state of disarray, how do you help them understand that their lifestyle creates harborage for insects and rodents, and they must clear some things out before you can help them resolve their pest issues?

“I explain that they won’t get the full benefit of the treatment unless they cooperate,” says Morton. “The pests I generally find in these homes are German cockroaches, bed bugs, brown recluse spiders and fleas, and honestly, since these pests hide in clutter, you’re basically just taking the customer’s money if they don’t get rid of any of that junk before you treat. I have had luck with cockroach baits in some situations, but it’s tough when you don’t have customer cooperation.”

Nieves often faces the same situation. “Hoarders present a special challenge in that they have to be convinced to let go of some of their garbage so that we can adequately prepare their home. Although we do everything in our power to help them understand and comply, sometimes we have to walk away from the account because they just can’t bear to part with their clutter,” she says.

Burgess adds, “The key is not to embarrass the person who has been hoarding. Often these people are dealing with serious emotional issues. As professionals, we are there to resolve their pest control issues. It’s important to be patient and understand that this isn’t likely to be a quick fix.”

Don’t lose faith, Molluso advises, because sometimes explaining the severity of the customer’s pest issue to them is the wake-up call that spurs them to get their lives back in order. “The most important thing we can do as PCOs is use our experience and knowledge to help these people with their pest problems. The rest is in their hands. Once the door closes behind us, it’s up to them to keep up the good work,” he says.

In Morton’s experience, that rarely happens, however. “Often when I tell people they need to clean up before I can treat their home, they promise they will do it, but they seldom do,” he explains. “They’re either too attached to their garbage or, if a relative is in charge, it’s just too hard for that family member to win the fight over getting rid of things.”

SUCCESSFUL APPROACHES. As in virtually every pest management situation, customer education is key. Burgess recommends determining whether family members, property managers, community agencies or other involved parties can help. Then inform all of them as to the steps that need to be taken.

“We provide a detailed preparation guide based on the pest and the type of service the customer needs,” he says. “This tool makes the effort easier in the long run as everyone involved can be on the same page, understanding what, specifically, needs to be addressed to make the pest service effective.”

Nieves adds, “Even if the customer decides not to book our services, we educate them, walking them through the process of preparing their home for pest remediation. We are committed to teaching everyone how to protect themselves — how to inspect, detect and prevent bed bugs.”

Molluso reminds that, no matter how frustrating it may be to service a hoarding account, it’s important to remain respectful of the customer: “We try to be as helpful as possible, providing educational information and assistance, and we always keep in mind that these individuals are just normal, hardworking people like us. We’re all just people, and we need to keep looking out for one another.”

The author is a frequent contributor to PCT.