Two big trash containers sat in front of a blue house in Kenmore. About a dozen people moved in and out of the house, hauling out old, rotten stuff and tossing it into the containers. This was a very special Saturday morning for Sherry, the 72-year-old owner of the house who didn’t want to reveal her last name.
Sherry has been a hoarder for more than a decade. Hoarding is a condition in which people excessively collect items without discarding them, eventually overstuffing a house. Hoarding can lead to dangerous situations by blocking hallways in an emergency and can make a hoarder unable to sustain a normal, healthy life by occupying necessary living spaces, even the shower and the kitchen.
Sherry started hoarding when she became sick. She was diagnosed with the Epstein Barr virus, chronic fatigue, diabetes and arthritis. The illnesses dragged her life down: She wasn’t able to go outside, have a social life or move freely. Then stuff started to pile up, and she had no energy to clean it up.
“I haven’t invited people to this house since 2001,” Sherry said.
No one helped Sherry for more than a decade, nor did Sherry ask for help because she felt ashamed of her condition. Sherry’s close friend, Laura Bentley, looked online and found out that Bio Clean offers free housecleaning for hoarders as an annual community service.
On Saturday, Bio Clean, a cleaning company in Lake Stevens, came over to her house to help clean things up. Volunteers included social workers, a retired mental health counselor, and two of Sherry’s friends.
The house was packed with all kinds of items, everything from the usable to the unusable, the edible to inedible. It was difficult and dangerous to move around the house because many items were blocking the way. The air was filled with dust, causing some people to cough or feel dizzy. There were spiderwebs on the ceiling. A mountain of dirty dishes was stacked in the sink. The basement smelled from rotten food in a refrigerator.
A lot of conversation went on between Sherry and the volunteers during the cleanup. Sometimes, Sherry argued with the helpers about what to throw away. Discarding items can be emotionally difficult for hoarders, who often feel attached to their belongings.
Lisa Martinez, a representative of Bio Clean, said the clean out process is building a relationship with the hoarder.
Before the clean out, all the volunteers introduced themselves to Sherry, making her comfortable enough to let them touch her belongings.
“We called Sherry a couple of times before, talking about what to sort out. You have to build a close relationship with a client,” Martinez said.
The social workers at the site — Michael Lillie and Rachel Wyda — work for a nonprofit called Hoarding Task Force. They said hoarders do not receive adequate medical and government assistance because hoarding is not yet considered a medical diagnosis, and government departments have different standards about hoarding. Most of the help for hoarders comes from nonprofit or community-based groups.
By the evening, the cleanup had made great progress, but it wasn’t completely done because there were too many items to be organized in a single day.
“I’m much more comfortable and I am terribly relieved that I won’t have to panic when somebody knocks on the door,” said Sherry.
Martinez said she may offer the free cleaning service for a hoarder next year, but not anytime soon.
“The nice thing is everybody here is volunteering their time and it’s a good sense of community,” said Tracey Dahms, a worker at Bio Clean.
Eunbi Cho is a student in the University of Washington Department of Communication News