Mar 23 2009

Launch!

The new version of hoardhouse.com is now live.

Thanks for your support. Be sure to visit the blog for future coverage and news on this issue.

Please pass this link an message on to your friends, family, colleagues or anybody who might be interested in hoarding, cluttering, and NYC.

Thanks again,

Karn Dhingra, Jackie Kasuya & Ben Piven


Mar 13 2009

April Conference on Hoarding

Hoardhouse has been invited to participate in a forum on compulsive hoarding that will take place at 10 a.m. on April 21st at Hartley House, which is a settlement house in Hell’s Kitchen. It will be an excellent way to present our multimedia project to an audience comprised mostly of social workers who seek to learn more about the topic.

Patricia Petersen, a passionate social worker at Hartley House, is organizing the conference. At yesterday’s planning session for the forum, she summarized the gist of dealing with hoarder clients, “You don’t just go in and grab someone’s stuff and tell them to throw it away!”

Participants plan the April 21st hoarder conference at Hartley House.

Participants plan the April 21st conference at Hartley House.

Then, Bob Kalin (a community organizer at Housing Conservation Coordinators) talked about an elderly Polish woman who had stowed away $25,000 worth of crumpled $20 bills. That was just one of several hundred hoarding cases he has dealt with over the past 20 years. Next, Don Tagatac (whose Trauma Scene Cleaning Management Inc. has worked with several dozen hoarders) mentioned how his business seeks to protect support agencies against exposing their social workers to bedbugs and other hoarder scene problems. The conference’s panel discussion should be a great opportunity to share our final product with professionals who can make practical use of our material.

There are 10 days left until the project is complete, and our full package goes live. It will be interesting to see how enthusiastically the body of work is received by all types of stakeholders. We have tried throughout to cover the issues at hand in a balanced way. In covering four broad groups (hoarders, psychologists, clean-up specialists, and support professionals), we have sought to give each a sufficient platform to voice perspectives and concerns.

That being said, we would like our viewers to continue to give candid feedback about our work – in terms of both the form and the content. We are striving to create an easily navigable site with information organized efficiently. And we are still earnestly working to avoid any semblance of voyeurism.

Also at the meeting yesterday, Susan Siroto (program director at Search and Care, on the Upper East Side) talked about avoiding an Oprah-type spectacle. While the eminent talk show host’s unique brand of edutainment has noble aims, we certainly hope to be more informative and thorough in our reporting. Stay tuned!


Feb 24 2009

Less Than a Month to Go

We’re entering the stretch run and our website is due to our professors in less than a month. After much discussion we’ve finally decided on a layout for the site. We ‘re almost done with our reporting and are putting all the multimedia pieces together for the site.

We visited Washington, D.C. and Baltimore this past weekend  to interview Erin Doland of unclutterer.com and John. Erin was great and very open with us. She talked about the creation of unclutterer.com and her childhood battles with clutter and how she deals with clutter today.

doland

We met John earlier in the school year and took some pictures of his apartment but he recently had his apartment cleaned and organized and was kind enough to invite us back to his place for an in-depth interview. John didn’t want to be on camera so we asked him to discuss items and objects that he particularly cherishes. John loves to go on cruises and is enamored with all things related to the ocean and oceanliners.  The interview was eye-opening and gave us more insight into his character. We hope we can present a nuanced portrait of him in a video that emphasizes his relationship with his belongings.

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On a side note,  Eric Adler of the Kansas City Star  recently wrote a story about hoarders in Kansas City. The headline the paper published was: The hoard festival; Packrats celebrate their collections — until they get in the way of living.

The headline was a little misleading because it read – at least to me -that the story was about a festival that celebrates hoarding. This is not the case . The story is about a few Kansas City area residents that have hoarding and clutter problems. The story gives some decent background information on the condition of hoarding and quotes Dr. Randy Frost, an expert we’re still hoping will speak to hoardhouse.


Feb 9 2009

Conquering Clutter the Hudson Guild Way

Hoarding and decluttering have recently graced the pages of two major lifestyle magazines: Domino and Real Simple. In the February 2009 issue of Domino, interior designer Ryan Korban offers pack-rats solutions to clearing out clutter. In the March 2009 issue of Real Simple, a reformed hoarder, Erin Rooney Doland, discusses how she was able to purge her excess belongings.

With an estimated 4.5 million Americans suffering from compulsive hoarding, it’s no surprise that discussions on hoarding have become ubiquitous. Oprah.com has over 40 articles devoted to decluttering your home.

Here are a few simple tips on decluttering that I picked up from my experience attending the Hudson Guild decluttering support group meeting:

Don’t discard items – donate them!


Anna-Leah Braudes, the moderator of the Hudson Guild decluttering support group, said that it’s less stressful for hoarders to donate items rather than discard them. Most hoarders have an easier time giving up belongings if they can give it to someone who appreciates them. Braudes recommends donating clothes to the Salvation Army and books to Merchant Marines.

As for items like newspapers, Braudes says that purging papers is very difficult to tackle because of their frequent delivery. She added that hoarders like to randomly clip articles from the paper, but fail to file them in a place where they’ll have easy access to them at a later date. It was suggested at one of the meetings that hoarders should cancel their subscriptions to publications because most information is now available via the web through a publication’s online archive. Articles can easily be bookmarked or forwarded to a personal email account for quick future reference.

Acquiring decision-making skills

During each of her meetings, Braudes emphasizes to her members how important it is to acquire decision-making skills before discarding items. She says that if a hoarder discards an item without understanding why they’re discarding it, they’ll be more likely to repossess that item at a later date.

Braudes says that professional help, such as hoarding expert, Dr. Randy Frost’s, cognitive behavioral therapy for hoarding, can help hoarders tackle obstacles that they cannot handle on their own.

Below is a list of a few programs that offer professional therapy for hoarding:

Bio Behavioral Institute –  (Great Neck, NY)

UCLA – OCD Intensive Treatment Program (Los Angeles, CA)

The Institute of Living – Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (Hartford, CT)

Seeing it for yourself

Not too long ago, Braudes suggested a bold idea, that as a group her members visit each other’s home so that they can visualize what each person is referring to during group discussions. But to date, no one has accepted Braudes’s suggestion. In fact, several members ended up dropping out of the group to prevent this from happening.

Braudes believes if hoarders can view the clutter of others in-person, it will encourage them to look at their own clutter more objectively. Often times, Braudes’ members relate to the items being talked about and, she said this serves as an obvious way of helping each other.


Feb 5 2009

The Cluttered Lives We Live

This project has forced me to think about clutter in my own life. Clutter extends far beyond our residential spaces, and it is relevant to time management, social life, information intake, and cultural choice.

Cluttered space often remains cluttered because clutterers lack the time management skills to accomplish tasks efficiently and effectively. Spatial and temporal clutter are intertwined. Similar psychological mechanisms are at play.

Spatial clutter arises from the failure to discard stuff from one’s personal sphere. Clutterers cannot decide when they have accumulated too much. There is a pathological issue in executing simple decisions about what to discard and what not to discard. Many clutterers are also fundamentally unrealistic about how much can be accomplished in a given time frame – with decluttering activities or otherwise.

Thus, time clutter and space clutter are intimately related. Inability to regulate one’s spatial life is inextricably linked to an inability to cope successfully with time constraints. Though there is not always a correlation between the two, many spatial clutterers also have a cluttered schedules.

But there are also time clutterers who do not suffer from cluttered space. Many meticulously neat people have intensely chaotic schedules. I have begun to contemplate my own time management and whether my schedule is too cluttered. Perhaps I do best with a cluttered schedule. Or perhaps I, too, should schedule less cluttered days.

During a Clutterers Anonymous (CLA) meeting on January 15th, I committed explicitly to thinking more about the relationship between spatial clutter (to which CLA is dedicated) and other sorts of clutter (namely, temporal and social).

A third type of clutter is social clutter, which is often be linked to temporal clutter. My life is often socially cluttered – whether due to technology such as Facebook or an excessively extroverted personality.

Is there a limit to one’s Rolodex, cellphone contact list, or Facebook friends? Is 1000 enough? What’s the line between a social butterfly and a social clutterer?

Next is information clutter. Columbia Journalism Review’s November/December 2008 issue dealt with information overload. Are we bombarded with too much knowledge? How much time do we spend uncluttering our gmail? Do you routinely lose files on your desktop and hard drive?

In this age of infinite information, it is difficult to maintain satisfactory levels of order in these realms. Technology should increase the speed and the order of our lives, but it also contributes to tremendous clutter problems. As with physical space, informational clutter does not become a problem until you simply cannot find what you’re looking for. Or, when you simply run out of space to store stuff.

But, information clutter does not stop there. Idea clutter in the classroom is forever nagging. Especially for journalists, word clutter and other written expressions of disorganization can be disastrous. Informational clutter is seemingly endless…

The fifth and final type of clutter in this entry is cultural clutter. Does this afflict me? I constantly find myself partaking in a rapidly growing number of cultural traditions. Is there a limit to the digestible variety of cuisines, fashions, religions, holidays, and languages?  Is splintered cultural allegiance detrimental to personal growth?

What may be burdensome clutter to some may be positive for others. For example, cultural clutter  might be more accurately labeled “cosmopolitan,” “diverse,” or “eclectic.” Similarly,  a social clutterer might be called popular. Are information clutterers not intellectual and informed? Time clutterers are often high efficient people. After all, when you need something done quickly, give it to a busy person.

Back to spatial clutter. There is often a very fine line between a collector and a clutterer.

In sum, let’s consider five potentially cluttered realms: space, time, friendship, information, and culture.

A little bit of minimalism does the body (and the mind) good.


Feb 3 2009

Thoughts

Work has picked up on our website and at school as of late. The team has been surprised by the amount of access we’ve been able to get from people with this illness and experts on this issue. The situation wasn’t  looking so good a few weeks ago. I was banned from a de-clutter support group because of concerns about liabilities and was kicked out of a Clutterers Anonymous meeting but Frederick , an attendee at that meeting was kind enough to give me his phone number and returned my  call the same night. He invited us to his apartment to let us interview him on camera and take pictures the next day. Frederick’s an artist and used to work in fashion design. We are currently working on a video that will feature him talking about his condition.

Last week Ben and I ventured out to Long Island to interview Dr. Fugen Neziroglu of the Bio-Behavioral Institute. Dr. Neziroglu was very gracious and answered all of our questions. She commented on some of the pictures of hoarding sites we’ve been able to document.  And an interview with Dr. Randy Frost of Smith College is in the works. He’s considered one of the foremost experts on this topic.

We’ve also been kicking around a few interesting concepts for the site and welcome any comments and ideas from our readers.

The project has also gotten some attention on the internet. We continue to receive emails from people all over the country and the world. And Unclutterer, one of the more widely read blogs on the topic of clutter has discovered our site.

We’re humbled and honored by our readers’ encouraging words of support and will continue to report on this issue in a thorough and transparent manner.


Feb 3 2009

The Freecycle Alternative

Freecycle is a global, grassroots movement that aims to reduce the gargantuan waste problem facing our planet. One of our readers, a member of the NYC chapter of Freecycle, sent us an e-mail proposing the Freecycle alternative to the problem of hoarding things (stuff generally, junk specifically).

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Here’s what this freecycler Brian wrote: “My wife and I make use of [Freecycle] to reduce our unwanted but still usable stuff.  The flip side is that people can get lots of stuff for free.  I see three or four people posting ‘Wanted’ requests almost every day. I’m curious to hear about any stories you’ve come across that have used freecycle or similar tools to acquire stuff.”

The notion of using Freecycle to gain more stuff might be an attractive one for hoarders looking to expand their stuff holdings. But, it seems that many hoarders would benefit from using Freecycle to downsize and declutter their residences. At heart, Freecycle is a means of exchanging items that would not necessarily be viewed as marketable in most mainstream marketplaces. It most definitely keeps stuff out of landfills by finding new owners for anything from cribs and blankets to treadmills and cross trainers.

In assessing what sort of impact the 6.3-million member international Freecycle movment has had on our collective attitudes towards stuff, perhaps it helps to think about where the preserved stuff would otherwise be located. Just like the material preserved, salvaged, and hoarded by compulsive clutterers, the Freecycled stuff is kept out of the dominion of trash. Like hoarders, freecyclers prevent stuff from being eternally committed to the massive containers, fields, and craters chock full of what we typically call “waste.”

Many Freecyclers (and some hoarders too) view themselves as conserving the environment and lessening our global trash menace. Freeganism (often associated with dumpster-diving) is a related movement that seeks to promote anti-consumerist values and the repudiation of socioeconomic disparities. Perhaps Freegans are anti-thetical to hoarders, since they aim to reduce our collective addiction to material possessions and only use what they absolutely need. Emphasis on sheer utility is not seen in hoarders, who often keep goods of minimal use or exchange value. Freecycle emphasizes functionality, while hoarders often fail to appraise an object’s actual capacity to be harnessed beyond the personal and sentimental realms.


Jan 7 2009

New Year’s Resolutions

With the start of a new year, Anna Leah, the moderator of a hoarding support group in New York, has challenged each of her group members to throw away one thing every day.

This resolution seemed somewhat unfathomable to one of the group members who claims that ubiquitous store sales continuously sway her into buying things she doesn’t need. Currently, her closet is cluttered with stacks of shoes, many of which she has never worn. In an attempt to curb her shopping sprees, the group member recently placed a sign in her agenda that says, “No Buy.”

Another group member recently donated a large quantity of travel books that she saved for trips she never ended up taking. Upon donating the books, she received a “donation receipt,” which she said motivated her to give away the books.

While she has taken control of cleaning out some of her clutter, she still feels obligated to ask her brother, who occasionally lives with her, whether she can donate his overbearing stacks of canned-food, which she says he’ll never eat. Another group member stressed that it’s important for her take control of her own surroundings and scolded her for suggesting that she ask her brother first before discarding his hoarded food.

At the end of the meeting, Anna Leah suggested that this year her members make an effort to create an environment where they’ll have access to fresh air and safe surroundings. The group members should start by clearing items away from windows or air vents, and if their homes are extremely cluttered, the group members should clear a pathway so that they can safely roam throughout their home.


Dec 18 2008

Level V Jersey Hoarder

My escapades in hoarding investigation took me to Passaic, New Jersey, on Monday. I met with a chronic hoarder with whom we have been in intermittent contact over the past two months. The meeting proceeded as planned, yet I was concerned throughout that my relationship with our first major hoarder would be jeopardized by my inquiries. Like walking on eggshells, my conversations with Catherine aimed to satisfy my curiosities while remaining consistent with what I viewed as a reasonable level of empathy.

My worst fears as well as my most dashing hopes were confirmed in this watershed interview and exploration of a truly Level V hoarding site. The disgustingly repulsive fundamentals of Catherine’s hoarding were remarkable. I have already happened upon the holy grail of our hoarding investigation, and the sight of it may have been too much to handle. Catherine’s hoarding involves bottles, papers, toys, 8 cats, and furniture. But, far and away the most revolting part of this first hoarding scene experience was the presence of both human and animal excrement all over the hoarding scene.

Kitchen Floor

The kitchen floor, with litter boxes

Catherine claims that her hoarding problem has improved. However, that is hardly believable, given the current state of her residence. It is impossible to enter more than a step-and-a-half through the front door of the residence. At least three feet of stuff cover the foyer and living room floors. It is impossible to enter more than two steps from the kitchen entrance to the residence, as three to four feet of rubbish cover the kitchen and adjacent areas of the first floor. And, this is a mere 5 months after Don Tagatac’s clean-up company removed 5 tons of detritus in 5 days of de-cluttering. Tagatac said that the stuff was about 5 feet high before he tidied Catherine’s residence. Now, the stuff is back up to at least three feet high.

Catherine risks being kicked out of her house by the Passaic County authorities because of the environmental and health violations associated with her hoarding tendencies. The county will soon take her to court and most likely put a lien on her house – unless Catherine manages to cough up the cash for another cleanup like July’s, of which she financed 60%. The county may again be willing to pony up 40% of the clean-up costs, but it is also very probable that Catherine is nearing the end of her quarter-century of extreme hoarding.

Baby Pics

Catherine's baby pictures were almost discarded in the July cleanup

Catherine told me that I was the first human being who was neither family member, cleanup specialists, nor hoarding therapy group member to enter her residence in 25 years. That means that, since I was born, this woman’s life has been characterized by an unimaginable loneliness in her private life. The hoarding and loneliness clearly go hand-in-hand, as one builds on the other. Interpersonal connections are indubitably made much more difficult as the hoarding turns off potential acquaintances and mates.

In essence, I was shocked by the disconnect between Catherine and logic. To a reasonable person, her hoarding mess would involve a series of concrete steps that would lead to a more functional and sanitary lifestyle. But hoarders cannot fully perceive the irrationality of their behavior and how it alienates them from non-hoarders. Perhaps they are capable of forming interpersonal bonds  with their fellow hoarders? This does seem somewhat feasible, but ultimately, serious hoarders create intimate relations with their junk in response to their isolation and disaffection from the rest of the external world. People who live with other human beings cannot accumulate the sorts of messes that exist in one-member households. Housemates cannot and will not generally tolerate extreme hoarding that has reached either Level IV or V – meaning severe impediment to living space and inoperability of most normal residential functions.

Living Room

The cluttered living room

To conclude, Catherine does not have many options left. Therapy may still be on the table, but her depression and ADD problems have long been co-morbid with her hoarding behavior. As she ages, sadly, it becomes less and less likely that she can kick her hoarding addiction. The shame inherent in the disorder prevents her from ever really coming to terms with how the behavior is viewed by non-hoarding public. The legal ramifications of her destructive clutter keep mounting, and it appears increasingly difficult for her to avoid the sanction of Passaic County authorities. I wonder whether living in an adult group home might be the optimal solution for this type of extreme hoarder.

Cleanup guru Tagatac was afraid that Catherine’s behavior had reverted to prior levels of hoarding, but it seems that he was not entirely surprised when I told him how severe the regression was. Barring the exceptional generosity of Passaic County and/or an immediate and total reversal of hoarding tendencies, Catherine is nearing full self-destruction. Hoarding takes a significant toll on society, but ultimately, it is the individual hoarder who suffers the most from the tragically odd behavior.


Video: Catherine’s back stairwell, which leads to her highly cluttered kitchen.


Dec 15 2008

De-Clutter Support Group Meeting

Today I attended a de-clutter support group meeting for elderly people at Dorot, where I met Karen Fuller, Director of Health & Nutrition Services, Linda Libow, a social worker, and Susan Kranberg, a professional organizer. Fuller and Libow manage the program, and Kranberg conducts the monthly meeting. Fuller allowed me to sit on the meeting as an observer and announced to a group of 1o attendees that I was there working on a project on clutter and hoarding.

The meeting was the last one Kranberg held for the year, and she urged attendees to throw away or give hoarded items like clothing, shoes, and books to charities, friends, and family for 2009. Their assignment for the next meeting is to report what items they have gotten rid of for the new year.

Disposal of papers was a major issue for all of the attendees. It seemed like everybody had a problem with throwing away hoarded copies of the The New Yorker and The New York  Times. There were a few things that struck me after the meeting. Two men and an African-American woman were in attendance. From our research, OCD-related clutter and hoarding are problems mostly found among single or widowed Caucasian women. Karen told me that Dorot’s de-clutter support group meeting is one of the few in the city that men actually attend.  I was also amazed at how social and frank some of the attendees were with regards to their condition.

When I arrived, I initially expected that I wouldn’t have the opportunity to speak to anybody besides Karen, Linda, or Susan Kranberg. And they made it clear to me that they didn’t want me to try and speak to attendees because of possible liability issues and my lack of experience dealing with people who have an OCD-related clutter and hoarding problem.

But three ladies approached me after the meeting and talked to me about their issues with hoarding and clutter. One lady named Susan (not Kranberg) had some especially interesting things to say:

  • “Procrastination is a big problem for people with this problem.”
  • “I wish I could find a psychiatrist or psychologist who would not tell me to throw my things away. I want to find one who can tell me how to live with my things.”
  • “I have many books on hoarding but I don’t have time to read them because I’m retired. And I don’t want to get rid of them.”