Real hoarders of Portland
Sarah DeHart tends to get the kitchens and bathrooms.
"We do biohazards, and this woman passed away in the bathroom. She sat on the toilet a good week before, and I got to clean the bathroom," says DeHart, a tech with Steri-Clean's new franchise in Oregon.
"The medics took her. She's had a diaper on. It was in the toilet and all her body fluids were in the toilet with it. So I got to clean that up."
DeHart used to work in restaurants, but she prefers this job. She's speaking to the Tribune as she takes a breather from cleaning out a kitchen in a hoarder house in Southeast Portland. It's a level four hoard (out of five) according to her boss, Steri-Clean Oregon co-owner Chris Gage.
Last week it was Roseburg, a home with 30 feral cats and a whole room like a cat litter box. Today began with her pulling up in the company van with her coworker David Brown, donning blue surgical gloves and a respirator, and clearing a path through the kitchen stocked with boxes and old cans. They sweat.
In this house, shelving made from wooden crates that used to bring artichokes from Washington holds a mixture of food, utensils and knickknacks. There are glass jars of pasta that has set solid over time, cans of tuna sticky with rodent urine, and on the table, three sets of kitchen knives in blocks. Thick cobwebs hang down the door. The sink is filled with dishes and garbage.
"I like it. Every job is different, every job is strange and curious. You meet a lot of strange people," DeHart says. She likes to chat with them about their stuff, and their lives.
Last week they cleared a house in Beaverton where a collector had left behind thousands of dolls. DeHart was allowed to take a few home.
The job has had an effect on her, though.
"The first week I worked for Chris I went home and cleaned my closets, got rid of a bunch of stuff. Not out of fear, it was just 'I don't need that 'I don't need that'' 'I don't need that,' 'I don't need that,' " DeHart says.
She sees common themes at hoarder homes: people saving wrapping paper and ribbons and boxes for Christmas gifts. Also, lots of empty bottles.
"The thing I think is the best is all their organizational stuff, like file cabinets, shelving units and Tupperware bins. Never been opened, just stacked everywhere."
The day before, she had sorted through a huge home in Northeast Portland. In the trash she had found three guns, two passports and a wedding certificate.
The sorting table
The house they're doing this day in southeast is a little different, Gage explains. Normally with an overstuffed hoarder home it's the family trying to get rid of most stuff. The owner has usually died or moved to assisted living.
The Steri-Clean team creates a sorting area at a table, sometimes under a tent outside. "Sometimes it's just a relative; those are the easier ones," says DeHart. "This one is hard because she's going through the trash cans and pulling out rusted cans of soup. I just let them do it. It's their house, their stuff. They're paying for it, we're just here to help them."
Chris Gage explains the psychology of letting go, particularly of other people's stuff.
"It only takes an hour for them (the family) to work with us before they realize we're very trustworthy and we're starting to bring stuff to them — 'Here's something of value you might just want that' — and a lot of times they just leave and say, 'You've got it.' We do our thing and they come back and it's a restored home."
You've got mail!
"Today in this house in Southeast Portland, the owner is home. She is fully compos mentis and she wants to clear some space so she can function there. She welcomes the Tribune inside on condition we conceal her identity. She's opted for the day rate. Steri-Clean will do as much as they can over two days, instead of working until they have tackled the whole house.
"This is a compromise," says Gage about the job. He's stepped out of the kitchen because he doesn't have a respirator and is cautious about the Hantavirus, which is carried in rodent droppings. Gage has found some space next to a couple of vintage Apple computers which the owner still has files on. It's the only usable space in the living room. Behind it are shelves full of VHS tapes, and everywhere there are grocery store bags stuffed with papers, medicines, clothes and miscellaneous.
"Once you're looking at a box and she says 'I know someone who can use that,' I start seeing it can take a while."
Indeed the woman whose home it is knows they won't make it to the attic. The stairs are blocked with boxes. She knows that up there there is a bag up there she hasn't looked at since she moved two apartments full of things in 35 years ago.
"I get interrupted, mainly by being out of town, or being tied up with my business. I'll be online and kind of ignore things. Then comes a time where you don't know where to start."
"That's where we come in," says Gage.
She is self-employed, has a degree in social sciences, has taught in universities and travels a lot. She has a three-point explanation of why her house is cluttered to the point of being almost unusable.
One, she had a string of housemates who left things behind, such as furniture and big appliances. Two, she travelled a lot, often leaving suitcases unpacked. And three, her last cat died. In its final days it soiled various places in the house, and now she can't get another cat because it will copy. Hence the rodent infestation, and the unusable kitchen, which is carpeted in the black crumbs of mouse feces.
The bedrooms are crowded, with infrared space heaters out of easy reach on top of furniture, operated by remote controls.
Gage confirms that space heaters are common because heating vents are often covered with stuff. Fire is a big concern. Just last weekend Clackamas Fired Department issued a tweet of a fire where, "Crews found heavy fire involvement on arrival and excessive debris in the yard and in the house which made access difficult. Sadly one occupant died before FF's could make access."
"I don't consider myself a hoarder," says the homeowner. "I consider myself a procrastinator. And I don't want to send usable items to the landfill instead of alternatives." She points to some bags under a table. There are several tables, which were brought in for the purpose of sorting things to help with decluttering.
"Some stuff is what I brought back from Christmas last year and I haven't even looked at it."
She says she ends up with multiple things when she can't find the original. "I just found another Swiss army knife, in a box."
In contrast, her father, when he died, had multiple copies of 20-year-old road maps. "I don't do that. I don't hold onto old newspapers and magazines. "Current papers and magazines get pushed away some place, and they're out of sight and I forget they're there. The biggest obstacle to decluttering is finding the time to do it. When you move every few years, you naturally do that. It's much harder when you stay in one place so long."
Gage, like his employees, enjoys the work.
They point people in the direction of counselors and they work with charities, such as With Love, to save and donate certain goods. They have a machine for sterilizing stuffed toys for donation.
Today's job, however, is to push the homeowner. She desperately wants to make her home habitable — she's been eating at Panda Express and sitting in her car a lot because it's "the most comfortable seat in the house."
"The main thing is to get someone like this past it," says Gage. "She could sit here for three months and get through three boxes. We're the horsepower. We're going to make headway whether that jar of pickles stays here or not. I'm looking at the end goal."
Steri-Clean in business
Steri-Clean is the Oregon franchise of the national company Steri-Clean, which is a regular presence on the TV show "Hoarders." Gage and his wife paid $50,000 for the franchise. He was a remodel contractor, then a civilian helicopter pilot in the logging and firefighting industries, before making 20-plus trips to Afghanistan. He got burned out and found Steri-Clean would be a nice mix of the two.
"I like helping people and this is like a puzzle. Take a big old house and see how're we going to make this work. At the end of the day, they walk back in with their families and it's all cleaned out and all the stuff is donated."
The techs start at $17 an hour. Experienced ones like DeHart and Brown make in the mid-$20s.
Gage rents a warehouse in Tigard where they take things to be sorted and stored short term. People often change their minds and want things back. He has a couple of trucks, a box truck and a dump trailer. The latter is for quickly unloading at the dump.
"We're not 1-800 GOT JUNK," he stresses. "We're experts in finding valuable things, treasures and keepsakes." I've found car titles in the middle of a 10-foot pile in a room."
The company owns three brands: Steri-Clean (for clearing houses), Hoarders.com, and Crime Scene Steri-Clean.
Gage says that Steri-Clean corporate, as a franchise owner, is easy to work with.
"That's what drew me. It's not like Subway, like a cookie cutter. We can source our own products, our chemicals. A lot of companies force you to buy their package."
Spreading the word is by (in this order) Google Ad Words, organic Internet search and word of mouth. The firm also hired a PR company and threw a party at the Nines Hotel last week, attended by Steri-Clean's top boss, Cory Chalmers, who is familiar from the A&E TV show.
Gage recently attended the Oregon Homicide Investigators Association Major Crimes Convention in Bend. The goal is to network with detectives to get the crime scene cleanup work.
Although he has a contractor background, Gage tries not to get into remodeling the homes he clears. That would be a lot of running back and forth to Home Depot, which is not his core business. Hazmat cleanup sometimes demands it, though. In one home, a man had shot himself on a couch. The family got a new couch and placed it over the blood stain. Gage persuaded them to let him cut out the carpet, which was a biohazard.
A "decom" is cleaning up after a decomposing body. "When someone passes away it kind of rots into the floor. We cut up the carpet, and the subfloor, until you could see the insulation and the crawl space. I went back and replaced it all for her. That's not something most companies would do."
Recently, he says, they removed 50,000 pounds of garbage from a two-bedroom townhouse in Northeast Portland. There are bigger fish out there in the state.
"We have a huge one we're waiting on in Pendleton. It's a level five hoard. If there was a seven, it would be that."
Steri-Clean Oregon, Biohazard and Hoarding Remediation Specialist
(888) 577-7206 Ext. 350