Jan 13 2009

Hoarders All Over the Globe?

Charles's Baltimore apartment. Level III Baltimore apartment.

The international community of hoarders is constituted disproportionately by Americans and other western folks. Additionally, 1st World countries with less effective social safety nets are far more inclined to produce a more extremely acquisitive brand of citizen. It is in the societies which over-emphasize material possessions and capital accumulation that clutter becomes most problematic and pathological. Thus, from initial attempts at gauging the hoarder proportion in countries like Sweden and Netherlands, it seems that many fewer citizens of those places have heard about hoarding. This is probably a result of the fact that hoarding is simply less common in societies that have more engaging mental health care and social counseling programs for all citizens. But, to be clear, much of these observations are speculative and certainly do not stem from any complex statistical survey of hoarding around the world.

As with many other psychosocial problems, the libertarian U.S. seems more likely that Western European nations to allow hoarders free reign to practice their odd craft without interference from government officials or health care workers. Many Europeans whom I have met seem rather surprised at my tales of American hoarding because they see such extremely deviant psychological cases as shocking. This derives not from the mere psychological deviance but from the fact that the appropriate public and private sector safety nets simply are not effective in addressing so many hoarding situations. The ‘live and let live’ creed reinforces a ruggedly individualistic social order accompanied by weak social protections in the U.S.

Beyond the welfare states in which hoarding seems less likely to fester, 3rd world societies perhaps contain much less compulsive clutter. In discussing the topic with lots of contacts in the subcontinent, I have not managed to discover any examples of hoarding in India. Perhaps the problem has not much been popularized or perhaps it takes on other forms. But, either way, hoarding is not recognized the same way there. It is very unlikely that anywhere close to 1-2% of the population suffers from the condition – as in the U.S.

The question that behooves asking is whether poorer, less developed societies are as prone as the U.S. to the same type of misdirected urges to accumulate junk and non-junk alike. The same goes for eating disorders and a number of other psychosocial disorders that occur with much more frequency in the urban, industrialized West. Deviant use of space and of stuff is less of a possibility in countries where there is much less space and stuff is afforded per capita. Is it wrong to assume that folks in underdeveloped countries have neither the time nor the sensibilities to engage in compulsive clutter?

There is a fellow Columbia Graduate School of Journalism student who had originally intended to do a print masters project on hoarding. She hails from Lebanon, where she said hoarding is not terribly common. However, she said that the one hoarder who she’d met in Beirut was completely unashamed of her behavior, in contradistinction to many American hoarders whose shame has no bounds.

Another international difference that I have heard about was involved the story of a Dutch family that had appeared on a popular TV show called Clean House. According to the person who told me about the episode, the father was such a hoarder that the rest of the family was forced to sleep together in one bedroom. This sort of situation seems fairly uncommon amongst American hoarders. The vast majority of hoarding cases that we have come across domestically are older folks who live alone. While I have heard about some American hoarder-couples who contribute equally to their household’s clutter, this Dutch example seems to confirm that there are some differences between American hoarding and hoarding abroad.

While the United States appears to be far more of a hoarder nation than most others, it remains difficult to determine whether hoarding simply takes on different forms in other societies. Are there more advanced forms of hoarding in highly evolved societies? Is there increased growth in clutterers who hoard information rather than physical possessions? Could this reality alter the established norms of hoarding? Moreover, do less developed societies simply have many more people who hoard food, water, and medicine rather than goods that are considered worthless or extraneous? These questions and more will be among the issues addressed in this blog during the coming weeks and months.


Dec 12 2008

Clean-Up Guru: Don Tagatac

Catherine harvests rainwater for bathing and uses a litter box as her toilet. She has had no plumbing for 7 years. The Georgetown alumna sleeps on massive rubbish piles next to her 10 cats.

Cleaning out Catherine’s cluttered three-bedroom house in Passaic, N.J., last July was not an easy task, even for professional de-clutterer Don Tagatac. Five tons of paper, rotten food, mattresses, and clothing took five days to remove.

Catherine is not alone. There are 300,000 hoarders in the New York metro area, said Randy Frost, a hoarding expert at Smith College. And, Catherine’s putrid residence is not even the messiest that Tagatac’s Bronx-based Trauma Scene Cleaning Management Inc. has tidied.

The 55-year-old former psychiatric nurse continues to suffer from her mental illness: compulsive hoarding. And, her unlivable home still qualifies as a “Level V” hoarding scene, posing severe health and safety hazards. She recently began a 12-step Clutterers Anonymous program.

I have a long way to go,” said Catherine, a former psychiatric nurse who labels herself an addict.

Passaic County has fined her repeatedly for health and fire code violations after neighbors complained about the mess outside her house. And her minivan is completely filled with her beloved detritus.

In a metropolis where untold legions are mentally unable to conform to the unwritten law of biannual home cleanup, Tagatac is a saint in the making.

beforeandafter

Two of Tagatac's cleanup sites

Compulsive hoarding is defined as the acquisition of, and failure to use or discard, a large number of seemingly useless items – precluding activities for which spaces were designed.

Hoarders have a pernicious effect on the homes they inhabit, often rendering them unlivable if their condition goes untreated.

But public officials have floundered in settling on the best course of action. The 2003 NYC Hoarding Task Force is now defunct. Insurance companies infrequently cough up funds for the requisite mental health care, and landlords are quick to evict hoarders, rather than help deal with the illness.

Tagatac’s 20 hoarding cleanups of the past year have confirmed his entrepreneurial instincts.

“I’m in a strange line of work. It’s a specialty job,” said Tagatac, a self-described industry pioneer, who manages a team of 11 employees.

Tagatac betrays a caretaker’s concern that runs in his family. His mother is an emergency room nurse, and his stepfather is a physician.

Born in the Philippines in 1981, he moved to New York in July 1996. Tagatac resides in the Pelham area of Westchester County.

Tagatac has also worked as a personal trainer since 2003, and he won national grappling championships in 2004 and 2005 in the 150 to 159.9-pound weight class.

The heaviest hoarder junk load with which his company grappled – 9 tons discarded from a Bronx apartment in June – was equivalent to 120 of his wrestling opponents.

Tagatac took over management of the clean-up enterprise two years ago. While the company initially did only biohazard and crime scene cleanups, an October 2007 trauma case involving a decomposed body at a hoarding scene gave Tagatac a bold idea – to concentrate on hoarder sites.

 

The TSCMI cleanup squad, with Tagatac on the right

The TSCMI cleanup squad, with Tagatac on the right

The business is now about three-quarters hoarding cases and one-quarter trauma scenes, said Tagatac.

“Hoarding is a misunderstood issue,” said Patricia Petersen, a geriatric social worker at Hartley House in Hell’s Kitchen who has worked with Tagatac. She added, “Most people think that all hoarders are pigs, but it’s an illness. It’s about control, and every item represents their attachment to things.”

All of Tagatac’s hoarding clients live alone, and 90 percent are female. Most are elderly.

The economic downturn and budget cuts in social services threaten to end the relationship that he has formed with the hoarders of New York.

“It’s annoying to hassle with people over money, but I really just enjoy helping people,” said Tagatac.

“Ultimately, you can’t go to sleep in a comfortable bed after you’ve just seen 10 potential hoarder clients,” said Tagatac, who hopes that city government will subsidize hoarder cleanup in the future.

During one September cleanup in the Bronx, Tagatac’s six-man crew struggled for two hours to enter a junkaholic’s residence. After wiggling the door open, they thought they were in the clear. But after each bag of junk was removed, more stuff would fall down towards the door, and the men resumed their Sisyphean task.

“It may be a blurry line between the Collyer hoarders [the infamous Harlem brothers who died in 1947 with over 100 tons of stuff] and people who just keep taking stuff in and get overwhelmed,” said Ann Schongalla, an Upper East Side psychiatrist who uses the same gym as Tagatac.

She concluded, “Tagatac should have a lot of business, if only he can get in the door.