Organization is not usually a hoarder's strong suit, so when Patrick Conley arrived at a cleanup job to find small, labeled boxes amidst the chaos and trash, he was surprised. Then he opened the boxes. Inside each one was a dead cat -- more than 30 in all, each in a box marked with its name.
Conley is the marketing manager for Hadad Real Estate Services in Wilkinsburg, Pa., a company that cleans up after compulsive hoarders. In addition to the woman that he remembers as the "dead-cat lady," Conley and his company have emptied out and restored the homes of "dead-rat lady," "9,000-Heineken-bottle lady," "parrot lady" and dozens of other hoarders.
In the early 2000s, when the company's workers showed up at a home to find impenetrable rooms filled floor to ceiling with trash, they called it "critical care" or "health hazard" cleaning.
Then, in 2009, the A&E cable TV series "Hoarders" began broadcasting. The show quickly became one of the channel's most popular series, spawning copycats on TLC and even Animal Planet. More than 2 million people tuned in this May for the premiere of the fifth season of "Hoarders."
Its popularity not only changed the language -- it helped create an industry.
Craig Delaney, owner of biohazard cleanup company Dash Bio-Recovery, estimates that hoarding cleanup jobs now make up 30 percent of his South Fayette, Pa., company's business -- a number greatly influenced by the popularity of reality television shows.
California-based cleanup company Steri-Clean has seen such an increase in business that it will start to sell franchises within the next three months. Its owner, Cory Chalmers, is regularly featured on "Hoarders."
Chalmers said he frequently gets calls from businesses hoping to get into the industry. But many of them, despite interviews with potential clients, have yet to book a job and are wondering what they can do.
"We tell them it's actually about the way you interact with people," Chalmers said. "They need to build that trust, and until then, they're not going to get jobs."
The bottom line, he said, is this: While you might think you're ready to stomach the things you find in hoarders' homes, you may not be ready to deal with the most important aspect of the business -- the hoarders themselves.
"You have to develop a trust and a connection with these people," agreed Conley. "If they think you're just there to empty out their houses and tell them all their stuff is trash, you're not going to have success."
Hoarding cleanup businesses often vow to bring homes back to normal in a matter of days, Conley said. On "Hoarders," cleanup crews have just 48 hours for a job.
That can be off-putting to clients.
"Sometimes you know something needs to be thrown away, but the timing isn't right," Conley explained.
Embarrassment can also be a factor, Delaney said. Many clients are ashamed of the state of their home and have taken years to work up the courage to call a cleanup company.
Hadad is careful to avoid putting the trash on the lawns, Conley said, in order to spare clients judgment from neighbors.
"You have to be a special kind of person," Chalmers explained. "At times, you're almost like a therapist."
In fact, hoarding is considered by many to be a psychological illness, similar in type to obsessive-compulsive disorder.
"Almost all of them have gone through some kind of trauma that sent them into a downward spiral," said Conley.
Hoarders are individuals, he stresses, and understanding clients' pasts and interests is an important step in the cleaning process.
When he learned one client was a huge fan of Elvis Presley, Conley filled a room with trinkets and cutouts of the King of Rock 'n' Roll, creating a safe space where she could stay while her home was emptied.
Delaney estimates that about half of Dash Bio-Recovery's cleanup jobs involve working directly with hoarders; the other half are assignments called in by family members and management companies looking for help with deceased hoarders' homes.
Hadad Services in Pittsburgh, Pa., offers its hoarding clients aftercare that allows the company to return weekly to their homes as a kind of maid service. Most don't have the money, or the motivation, to take the company up on it.