I have mixed feelings about the term ‘hoarder.’ It’s kinda pejorative, and most of the people who refer to themselves by it aren’t really hoarders. But everyone knows what it means. There isn’t much terminology for this sort of thing yet, because it has only recently come to the attention of the mental health/medical community. My people often have such a deep sense of shame around their physical environment that they won’t breathe a word about it. They don’t know – most people don’t know – that it’s honestly very common. I would estimate at least 20% of households in our culture have issues with squalor, chronic disorganization, and/or hoarding. There are three that I know of within a stone’s throw of my house.
There is endless fascination for me in this scenario. None of these families know about me and my work. How could they? I can’t very well walk up to the front door, knock, and point out that their problems are obvious from across the street. Also, I don’t advertise. I only take on a job when I feel like the household is at least a 2 out of 5 on the readiness scale. That tends to rule out cold calls. It’s grueling work and it can be demoralizing, even for a gold-star optimist like me. I figure I can help more people by making my writing available to a receptive audience.
The first house is one of a typical pattern. They’re an older couple who appear to have a pretty busy social life. The house and yard are well kept. The living room curtains are almost always open. The garage door is often open, too, and that’s how I know there’s a clutter issue. It’s stacked floor to ceiling, wall to wall, with boxes and loose items. Most people wouldn’t even consider this a hoarding situation because at least 2/3 of American households keep their garages this way. Households in this category sometimes have a ‘junk room’ or a guest room that takes a couple of days to clear when there are impending overnight guests. There is always at least one closet that is packed completely full; sometimes all the closets and cabinets are. This isn’t really a big deal, and the only reason it’s any of my business is that, well, clutter is my business. There’s just that nagging possibility of undetected water leaks, electrical fires, or vermin – issues that do affect neighboring homes. Otherwise, hey, it’s a free country. If you want to build your own Minecraft maze out of boxes, whatevs.
The second house is less common, but of the type that is identifiable from Google Earth. There are at least two truckloads worth of tubs and boxes stacked in the front and side yard and in front of the garage. Some of them are covered with sheets. An upholstered chair and an old TV were left out on the front curb for several weeks. (In many neighborhoods, these items would have been collected by some random passersby, but that doesn’t seem to happen on our street). We occasionally see a fit-looking man doing some kind of work out there, but it’s not clear whether he’s helping clear it away or just adding to it. Is the hoard in the yard expanding, or is it just evidence that the inside is slowly being emptied out? It has all the characteristics of the former, but the chair and TV removal are hopeful signs. I wish them well.
The third house is probably the most interesting, because I actually met the occupant and we had a real conversation. She was holding a yard sale. The offerings consisted almost entirely of floor looms, spinning wheels, and other specialty craft equipment. It turned out that we both had connections to the same social club, and I offered to advertise her equipment to my friends as a favor to all concerned. I gave her my email address, and she was supposed to send me a link with pictures, prices, and contact info. It never happened. As far as I could tell, by the end of the “sale,” none of the items had actually been sold. They were in fine condition, but priced high enough that it was clear she was reluctant to let them go. (This is a common attribute of antique shop owners and rare book sellers). It was also clear, based on the sheer volume of stuff and the square footage of her house, that the place would have been packed to the gills, even if nothing else was inside. The second clue is that the windows are mostly covered with sheets, curtains, and the sort of metallic reflectors often seen on car windshields. They may be energy-efficient in our climate, but they’re also effective screens against looky-loos (such as myself).
To round up my neighborhood assessment, there is a house with an immaculate yard and a PODS unit perennially standing in the driveway. There is at least one “project car” that, judging by its tarp and baggy tires, has not run for far longer than the two years we’ve seen it parked. On my running route, there is a house with a permanent yard sale. The condition of the houses and yards varies from one to another. If you put all the inhabitants together in a focus group and showed them slides of each other’s homes, they would probably all find something to scoff at. The person with the sheet-covered bins might laugh at the PODS renter’s profligacy, while the PODS renter might be mortified by those bins. The “project car” guy might wonder why the stacked-garage family doesn’t clear out a decent work space, while they in turn might wonder why he keeps a car that doesn’t run. There is no universal standard for what makes a house a home, or what makes a possession truly valuable.
These aren’t moral issues. Well, okay, it would be a moral issue if there were children whose health and safety was put at risk. Or other dependents. Or if someone was doing something deliberately to spite the neighbors or the landlord. Or if one of the occupants was struggling with a mental health issue and everyone ignored it and let them suffer alone. Or maybe other scenarios I can’t imagine, but might next time I walk by. Anyway, clutter is a logistical issue. The reason it’s a problem is that it interferes with daily life. It can get out of control while we’re not paying attention. It can hide other problems, like structural damage, that can be expensive and dangerous. Otherwise, it’s a matter of personal preference. It’s not that I judge my neighbors, it’s professional interest. I’m curious, and I care what happens to them, and I’m ever so interested by whether any evidence turns up that someone has had an epiphany. Let’s get rid of it all and put in a nice rose garden instead. Or a robot workshop. Or a home CrossFit box. Or…
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.