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.


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.