Sunday, May 3, 2009

Bronx-based service cleans out hoarders' cluttered homes

BY BEN PIVEN
SPECIAL TO THE NEWS
Sunday, May 3rd 2009, 4:00 AM
http://www.nydailynews.com/ny_local/bronx/2009/05/03/2009-05-03_his_job_is_sweep_relief_bronxbased_service_cleans_out_hoarders_cluttered_homes.html

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

Cleaning out her cluttered three-bedroom house in New Jersey was not an easy task, even for professional declutterer Don Tagatac. Five tons of paper, rotten food, mattresses and clothing took five days to remove.

Catherine, a 55-year-old former psychiatric nurse, suffers from a little-understood mental illness: compulsive hoarding.

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

Tagatac serves as a mediator between the victims of the psychological disorder and the landlords, bureaucrats, social workers, psychologists and family members who struggle to contain the problem.

Compulsive hoarding is defined as the acquisition of, and failure to use or discard, a large number of seemingly useless items. The storage of these items often precludes activities for which spaces were designed. This renders homes unlivable if the condition goes untreated.

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," admits Tagatac, who manages 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.

Tagatac took over management of the cleanup 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 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. Petersen, who has worked with Tagatac, 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% are female. Most are elderly.

"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 cleanups in the future.

During one cleaning job in the Bronx in September, Tagatac's six-man crew struggled for two hours just 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 toward the door, and the team resumed their task.

"It may be a blurry line between the Collyer brothers [the infamous siblings who died in 1947 with more than 100 tons of junk packed into their Harlem brownstone] and people who just keep taking stuff in and get overwhelmed," said Ann Schongalla, an upper East Side psychiatrist.

"Tagatac should have a lot of business," she added, "if only he can get in the door."

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