In 2008 Jennifer Hanzlick was laid off from corporate America. When she was let go she did not know what she was going to do, but she knew she had no desire to go back. For three months she searched for her next thing. During this time her mom needed to move her grandparents into assisted living. Her grandparents were hoarders. Their home was floor to ceiling stuff with only a little path between it all to get from room to room. It took three months to clean the entire house and in the middle of it all Jennifer realized there was a business in this. Today Jennifer is the founder of Clutter Trucker, a Denver based business that helps hoarders and people with too much clutter reclaim their homes and lives.
Here is a bit of her story.
What is the difference between having too much stuff and being a hoarder?
It seems to be a mental thing that distinguishes the two. I am not a therapist but after four years I can tell by talking to people on the phone if they just have too much stuff or if they are hoarders. When people are emotionally tied to their stuff and they can’t let go of it really easily; then they are hoarders.
My work is about half with people who have a lot of clutter and junk and the other half with hoarders. It is harder to reach hoarders. Hoarding is a secret thing people do not really want to talk, especially before the TV shows.
What are some examples of something a hoarder would say that a person with just too much clutter would not?
A hoarder would say, “I simply will not get rid of it.” However, [I feel] it is more about the anxiety and anguish in their physical response during the actual process. Crying, sobbing or anger is more present with hoarders than with someone who has too much clutter.
Are there patterns in things that people hoard?
Yes, people hoard trash, food, books or informational things. There are others that just buy way too much and so many of the things in their homes still have tags on it.
What is your process when you are working with hoarders?
It takes time to establish a relationship and a level of trust. My initial meetings involve talking. A lot of times it is a death, divorce or illness that spurs them into calling me. Many times it is the family that calls me. I always let people know that they should not be ashamed. I have seen it all. I honor that it is their stuff. I tell them that they are in control and then it is a matter of asking them questions, sometimes over and over, and trying to help get them to get rid of their stuff. Sometimes the sessions are only two hours because after that it is too mentally taxing on them to go any further.
Let’s say you are working with someone who hoards books. How do you work with them to decide which books they will keep and which they will get rid of?
It is tough. Usually it is dire circumstances that have brought me in so you have to keep reminding them that they are going to get evicted or of the consequences of what will happen if they do not get rid of all except that which they absolutely need. I need to remind them of the consequences of what will happen if they don’t get rid of it. The fire department can condemn the building. They can get evicted. It is hard to get them to understand the consequences of hoarding. A lot of time I come in when there is pressure from a family member. Typically the pressure from the family member only creates distance between the family member and the hoarder.
What do you do with the stuff you take out of the house?
We donate a lot. We do not donate to Goodwill or Arc because so many hoarders go to Goodwill or Arc and it creates this vicious cycle. I work with an organization that helps former prisoners furnish apartments. I would rather give it to an organization that actually needs it instead of an organization that will resell it.
I went to Haiti after I lost my job. Those people have nothing, but they have a lot of looks of joy on their faces. Thirty kids would play with one soccer ball and they love it. We have a container here so we take things that they actually need and we ship them to Haiti. It is a good feeling to know we are helping. If they saw how much excess we had – they would be shocked.
What is the timeframe involved from going into the house the first time until the house is clean?
It varies drastically. We worked with a woman that it took three months going twice a week, but we have also done it in two days.
I am curious as to how you find the hoarders reaction after their homes are cleaned?
Usually, tears of joy, hugs and relief. However, it is very common to have follow up calls when they ask me where something is. Sometimes they are irritated and even angry. However, we always tell them before we get started, “when this over there will be items you will miss or will be moved. But rest assured if it is very important we did not throw it out.”
How prevalent is hoarding in society?
It is widespread; so much more so than what most people know. After doing this for four years and getting to understand hoarders, I feel like I can drive down the street and look in people’s yards or look in people’s shopping carts and know they are hoarders. People do not like to talk about it and family and friends like to ignore it.
What advice do you have for family members trying to help hoarders?
I think people are afraid to acknowledge it. Hoarders are isolated, lonely and embarrassed. It is not their fault. Researchers have not figured this out. People tend to question hoarders personalities and my advice would be to not ignore it and not to leave your friends and family with problems hoarding in isolation. The more they are isolated the worse it gets. It does not mean that you need to spend time with them in their house, but they need to be out in society and they need mental help. Ignoring the problem is the worst thing you could do. I feel like 80 percent of the people I know, know someone who is a hoarder. There is so much more to a hoarder’s personality than the fact that they are hoarders.
Has there ever been a time where you felt your services were not helping?
Yes, if someone is not mentally or emotionally ready. It is not a good use of our time and in the end could do more damage than help. This happens on a regular basis and I can usually tell after the first hour. I will recommend some type of therapy before we are called back. It is heartbreaking to leave someone in horrible conditions, but you cannot force someone to get rid of their stuff even if it is needed.
What about advice do you have for hoarders themselves?
Don’t isolate yourself. There are hoarder support groups. Try to get help.
What advice do you have for people who just have too much clutter?
It is about taking the first step. People get overwhelmed and tired of looking at. People take so much time and energy avoiding it. It is all about the first step.
How do you define clutter?
An excess of stuff you do not need. Clutter inhibits everyone’s creativity and ability to think. You know what it feels like when you have a clean and clear space. It opens your mind to do things, but when you are in a space with too much stuff it makes your mind more cluttered and prevents you from doing a lot of these things.
Do you have any stories or ways you have helped people that you are particularly proud of?
Two stand out for me because they did not have family to help them. In each case the clients were in the hospital and not allowed to come home because of the condition of the homes. The clients gave me the keys to their homes and trusted me with their house and ALL of their belongings. This involved regular visits to the hospital to talk things over. These visits meant a lot to me and I know the conversations and the friendship meant a great deal to my clients. I can only imagine how nervous and ashamed my clients felt and I was honored they trusted me to clean out truck loads of stuff so they can return home.
Do you have any recommendations on books, websites or other resources people could use to help with too much clutter or hoarding issues?
1800hoarders.com is a great resource. Cory Chalmers is the founder and has webcast and articles. He has a company who helps people just like I do. Childrenofhoarders.com has a wealth of information such as books, blogs and organizations.
What do your services cost?
Normally we charge based on how much stuff we get out, but there are certain cases where we do it hourly. For a typical hoarder it can be between 500 and 5000 dollars.
Have you ever found things of particular curiosity in your clean outs?
I found an entire bathtub about five feet high of used sanitary napkins. This woman had a really good job. She went to work every day. Her co-workers I am sure would be surprised to learn she lived like that. We went in and cleaned it out. People do not truly want to live like that.
You are a brave soul.
As gross as it is; it really feels good to help these people. I keep trying to tell my friends there are other ways to make money outside of corporate America, but I understand. I was caught up in it. People don’t see the potential and many times those who can have too much fear to do it.
More about Jennifer and her business Clutter Trucker at: http://www.cluttertrucker.com