- Fiona Mills is a 31-year-old based in Tampa, Florida who became a hoarding technician in 2018 after 12 years of working in the medical field.
- To most people, a hoard just looks like a bunch of trash — but to the hoarder, it’s organized chaos where each item has a perceived value.
- The job is physically and emotionally taxing. Most days, Mills has to lug away mattresses, sofas, and refrigerators, and deal with hoarders who don’t want to let their belongings go.
- Hoards are categorized by different levels of severity, Mills says. A Level 1 hoard can include some clutter and animal waste; a Level 5 hoard may have structural damage, no electricity or running water, and noticeable human waste.
- Mills says she sets aside judgment and approaches every hoarder with empathy and an ‘I’m here to help get you organized’ approach.
- This is her story, as told to freelancer writer Jenny Powers.
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Editor’s Note: This post contains disturbing images and graphic details of real-life cases that may be upsetting to some readers.
It all began late one night when I couldn’t sleep and started scrolling through Instagram. I follow a few crime scene cleanup pages because I’ve always been fascinated by that stuff, and I noticed one of them, Spaulding Decon, was hiring technicians, so I applied. I remember thinking, ‘What’s the worst that could happen?’
It was 2018, and I was working as a certified nursing assistant in Florida, where I’ve lived since my family moved to the US from England when I was 14. I looked after several hoarders in hospice, and I was always intrigued by the psychological aspect of hoarding. Hoarders often obsessively stack things a certain way or keep like items together. To us, it might look like clutter and a lot of trash, but to a hoarder, it’s organized chaos and they attach a perceived value to these objects, despite how they may appear.
The day after I applied for the job, I got a call to come in for an interview.
I’d been working in hospice for 12 years at that point. I was ready for a change. Little did I know, my career was about to go from one end of the spectrum — the end of life — to the other: trying to live better.
The interview was like none I’ve ever experienced. Laura Spaulding sat me down and instead of asking run-of-the-mill interview questions like ‘what are your strengths and weaknesses?’ she asked what I did for fun outside of work. I told her I enjoyed camping, fishing, photography, and traveling and that once I went free-diving among sharks in the Atlantic Ocean. I like living life outside of my comfort zone.
Spaulding then asked me about my tolerance levels, because this job exposes you to things most people only see on television and in movies. Having spent my career in the medical field, I was used to being around sickness and death, although I can now say with confidence nothing prepares you for the day you walk into the bedroom of a guy who’s been dead for three months and melted into his mattress, leaving behind only maggot-filled remains for you to discard.
All employees are required to take a week-long training.
On the last day, you are required to pass an exam to become certified.
The company warehouse has three training rooms housing mock biohazard scenes. The rooms are doused in pig’s blood and there’s no air-conditioning, which is common on most jobs. This is followed by three months of on-the-job training.
My first day at work I was assigned to a hoarding/biohazard job.
The job was on the third floor of a condominium, but I could smell the decay from the parking lot. I can always sense a hoard by the sweet, musky scent in the air.
The place smelled awful, as the man’s body had laid decomposing for months, eventually leaking into the downstairs neighbor’s apartment. We had to push our bodies against the door just to make our way into the apartment and trample down the trash to make a path.
Once in, my boss called to let me know the coroner had been there and removed the deceased’s bones however there was still a full head of hair and scalp stuck to the mattress.
At first glance, it looked like the back of someone’s head laying on the bed except in this instance there was nothing attached to the scalp except for maggots. I peeled it off the bed. It was crunchy to the touch and made a crinkly sound.
The job is both physically exhausting and mentally draining.
I work five days a week and am on call weekends. Most days, it’s not unusual to find yourself lugging a king-size mattress, sleeper sofa, or refrigerator down flights of stairs to dispose of it.
You’ve got to have a strong stomach because you’re going to see it all — cockroaches, rats, dead animals, blood, guts, and feces. None of this phases me. I’m much more scared of frogs, to tell you the truth. Just last week, a frog jumped into my truck and I was like ‘well, I guess I’ve got to trade in my truck now.’
You’ve got to be steady on your feet and possess a lot of physical strength.
You also need to have plenty of endurance because you’re going to find yourself trudging through garbage like an obstacle course, navigating spaces, moving furniture, and heavy lifting.
Hoards are rated Levels 1 through 5.
Level 1 may include light clutter and a maximum of three areas with animal waste, but no noticeable odors and all doorways and staircases are accessible.
This type of hoarder has difficulty throwing items away and shops unreasonably for things they don’t need.
Level 5 can include severe structural damage to the home, broken walls and fire hazards, and no electricity or running water. Tenants may discharge waste into non-toilet receptacles, resulting in noticeable human feces and clutter on every surface.
I’ve mostly worked on Level 3 and 4, which include structural damage, sewage issues, noticeable mold and mildew, rotting food, and flea, lice and bed-bug infestation.
Our uniform consists of khaki pants or shorts, a Spaulding t-shirt, and a matching baseball cap.
We always put on our personal protection equipment before entering the premises. This consists of a one-piece Tyvek jumpsuit, rubber boots, nitrile gloves or all-purpose heavy-duty ones depending on the type of work, and a half-face respirator.
The respirator cuts off some of your oxygen intake, but after a while you kind of get used to it. You know you’ve got it on right when the area around your mouth and nose area immediately start sweating. If you can smell anything when you’re wearing it, it’s not on right.
When I come home from a job the first thing I do is peel off my clothes and bathe.
Sometimes I can’t determine whether the smell is lingering in my nostrils or on my clothes. What I do know is that I want it off of me.
I live with my girlfriend. Sometimes when I get home she’ll run a bath for me, light a candle, and get me a glass of wine or a hot cup of tea without me even asking. Most nights I tell her about my day. We both hate clutter, so you won’t find a lot of stuff in our house (ever).
I’ve never met a poor hoarder.
It’s pretty routine to find top-of-the-line plasma-screen televisions, unopened Mac computers, and stacks of Amazon boxes among the piles.
I once worked with a hoarder and while we were going through her unopened mail together, we found a bank account with $60,000 in it that had been closed. She wasn’t aware of where that money was and didn’t even seem concerned.
Apart from this, the one thing I find in every hoard which is totally random are empty boxes of Raisinets. I have no clue why, but they’ve turned up on every job I’ve ever been on — it’s just a matter of finding it.
My signature move is inspecting the fridge on a job. I once found a liquefied Thanksgiving turkey and a container of milk from 1997 in the year 2018.
Most hoards we do are empty houses where the person has either moved or died.
A family member will typically instruct us to only save photos and important documents and toss the rest. These jobs are easier than the homes where hoarders still live because they tend to slow down the job.
One I was bagging up cat urine-soaked piles of clothing to throw away and each time I’d turn my back, the woman who lived there would discreetly move the bags away from me in an effort to keep them.
When you are working face-to-face with a hoarder, you need to set aside any judgments.
A lot of time they will experience separation anxiety, so it’s important to come in with an ‘I’m here to help get you organized’ attitude instead of ‘I’m here to throw out all your stuff.’
It’s not unusual for a hoarder to get mean or insulting. After all, they associate value to their belongings and these cleans are usually being conducted against their will.
My work is nothing like any job I’ve ever had. Every job is completely different.
I’m also a full-time college student working on getting my associate’s degree virtually at a community college studying law enforcement. There’s so much more I want to learn, and being a hoarding specialist has definitely helped me learn how to communicate well and empathize with others.