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Business for 'Hoarders' star is picking up
Photo by FRANK BELLINO
Steri-Clean supervisor Steve Shopa takes a mattress to the trash from a vacant hospice building that squatters were using in Long Beach. Steri- Clean cleans up crime scenes, suicides and traffic accidents as well as hoarders’ homes and is featured on A&E network’s show, “Hoarders.”
STORY BY LAURIE LUCAS, 24 July 2012 10:09 PM, Courtesy of Press Enterprise, www.pe.com
Chances are, if you’re a fan of A & E’s “Hoarders,” you’ll recognize Cory Chalmers, one of the kings of cleanup.
When the new season debuts next month, you can catch him and a crew on the cable network Aug. 20, carting away 10 tons of debris from a junk-infested home. To Chalmers, this is the ultimate challenge, trying to save hoarders from their tsunami of trash.
“Sometimes I have to push if they aren’t willing to let it go,” he said. He’s filmed more than 20 episodes since A & E’s producers came calling several years ago for what would turn into an unexpected sensation. “Hoarders” was nominated for an Emmy last season, its premiere watched by 3.5 million viewers. Celebrity is the latest component of Crime Scene Steri-Clean, the soaring business he launched 17 years ago in Rancho Cucamonga.
Chalmers worked out of his garage, loading his Aerostar van with cleansers and scrubbers. Today, at 41, the 6-foot, 199-pound CEO has a staff of 22, covers the entire state and plans to start his first franchise this fall in San Diego with ambitions to go nationwide..
Steri-Clean, once the lone sanitizer of unsavory scenes in a non-existent industry, now numbers among 480 companies — most of them small, home-based operations — registered with the state to do this kind of dirty work. But for Chalmers, saving hoarders and their relationships with family members isn’t just a job — it’s a mission. So much so, he sometimes works for free.
“We’re not just a hauling company,” Chalmers, a Claremont resident, said during an interview at his 8,000-square-foot headquarters. He’d just arrived moments ago from the airport, back from five days of filming for “Hoarders” in San Antonio, Texas. “We’re there to help change the horrific, tragic and dangerous way they live.”
On and off the air, Chalmers works with mental health experts who help hoarders change their behavior. He created a hot line — 1-800-hoarders, and a website offering a national database with tips and referrals that averages 2,000 views a day.
No matter where he is, every Sunday at 5 p.m. Chalmers and a therapist in New York log onto a chat room to sound out anonymous hoarders.
Now a nationally recognized expert, Chalmers gives seminars on hoarding and plans to start a support group in one of his company’s conference rooms.
“These people are not lazy,” Chalmers said. “Almost every one of them has suffered some kind of trauma or loss.”
Chalmers added the hoarder half of the business in 1998, three years after he started Steri-Clean to deal with blood and body fluids.
As a firefighter and paramedic in Garden Grove, he was moved by the helplessness of families faced with a grisly and upsetting wipe down after a loved one’s violent death. The turning point for Chalmers came when he hugged the sobbing, blood-soaked widow of a man who’d blown his head off at home in a bathroom.
Back then, there were no professional mop-up companies for murders or suicides. Firefighters used to squirt water and wash the blood down the gutter, he said.
But in 1998, after the state laid down rules, training and licensing requirements for trauma-waste cleanup, the demand rose for Steri-Clean’s services.
Today Chalmers’ business is evenly split between cleaning up blood and guts known as “biohazards” and removing the detritus of hoarders.
Forty-eight cities in Southern California — including Riverside, Rialto and Murrieta — contract with Steri-Clean to obliterate the aftermath of crimes, traffic accidents and suicides on public property. His crew typically handles 10 to 15 such jobs a week, covering everything from plane crashes, police cars, jail cells, stabbings, beatings, shootings and traffic collisions.
Chalmers charges municipalities a $500 flat fee, about one-third of his price for private cleanups.
He also assesses 20 hoarding jobs a week, his crew handling as many as 10. Because much more labor is involved than in crime scenes, costs start at $750. Chalmers said he has charged as much as $25,000 after using 10 semitrailers to haul away 150 tons of stuff from a 1,000-square-foot abode.
“We’ve gone into homes where it’s all Christmas related, pornography houses and kleptomania homes, where the owner keeps stealing and becomes a hoarder,” Chalmers said.
Jeanne Barkemeijer de Wit, 57, said she’s spent a few thousand dollars to call in the Steri-Clean crew three times to purge her Anaheim home from her husband John’s blockades of stuff that detonated her allergies.
“The dust was so thick in the bedroom I could write in it,” she said. “Cory’s such a nice person, kind and not judgmental,” she said. “He didn’t shove anything down John’s throat, but let him make the decisions.”
Chalmers keeps hoarders’ cleaned, salvageable and voluntary castoffs for two weeks in his warehouse — in case their owners change their minds and reclaim the goods. If not, he donates everything to shelters and charities.
He gestures at another section of the room that he’s dubbed “the mattress graveyard.”
“That’s an odor you never forget, decomp,” Chalmers said, wrinkling his nose at lingering traces of human decay. There are about a half-dozen mattresses propped upright, each with gaping holes where his crew has cut out chunks stained with fluids from unattended decomposing bodies, homicides and suicides.
The chopped-out pieces of bedding and other rags, padding and carpeting soiled with biohazardous waste products are stored nearby in 40-gallon containers. Once a week they’re taken to a medical waste facility in Paramount. There, everything is autoclaved and disinfected before the materials are dumped in a landfill and the bins returned to Steri-Clean for the next collection.
Chalmers’ crews also fill 5-gallon drums with small body parts and human remains, such as tissue, brain matter and teeth — that aren’t crucial to the crime scene investigation. “If we find something significant, we call the coroner to recover it,” he said. The medical waste facility then collects these containers to have the contents incinerated.
A & E’s producers contacted Steri-Clean four years ago for a crime-scene ride-along, but recoiled at the all-too-graphic details they encountered firsthand. One was at a hoarder’s home, which inspired them to shift gears and make a different program. The pilot premiered in 2008 as “Dirty Work,” which metamorphosed into “Hoarders.”
Chalmers understands the cable network’s squeamishness. “I employ workers with great personalities, compassion and empathy, who can talk to the families of crime victims and hoarders. It’s physically and emotionally demanding. It stinks, there are body fluids, it’s 100-degrees in your Hazmat suits and the labor can be exhausting.”
Even veteran firefighters and policemen he’s hired have quit after one day, unable to stomach the gore, stench and heartbreak. “You can show them pictures and videos, but until they actually see the real thing, they have no idea how they’ll react. We do have a bit of a turnover. But for others, it’s extremely rewarding.”
Robert McKeever, 30, the company’s project manager, loves the fact that no two days are the same. “You can only train so much. You can’t plan for everything.” Such as the man who was changing a tire on a forklift. The tire exploded and the rim decapitated him.
“When I started in the field, I didn’t know if I could do it. Emotionally, I don’t know the person, so it’s mind over matter,” McKeever said.
During the past six years, he’s handled the wreckage of plane crashes, a woman who killed her dog and self with a shotgun, children bludgeoned to death, a toddler run over by a truck.
“You know what makes me sick?” McKeever said. “Those surgery shows, where you see someone getting a nose job. I’d rather pick up brains all day than watch those surgeries.”
Cory Chalmers Hoarders
KCAL 9 News Interview
STUDIO CITY (KCAL9) — Cory Chalmers discussed his experiences traveling around the country to help clean up some of the worst cases, as well as stigmas that surround hoarding.
TODAY (NBC) June 2013 - The latest psychiatric diagnostic manual now lists compulsive hoarding as an official disorder, inspiring a group of agencies in southern California to begin an innovative new program to help rein in hoarders. NBC’s Ayman Mohyeldin reports.
Published: June 13, 2013 Updated: June 14, 2013 7:33 a.m.
By SALVADOR HERNANDEZ / ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
The floor vanished and the sinks, stove and toilet became useless as trash piled higher and higher.
Gillian Cannon, 72, hoarded soiled papers, empty cans, water bottles and cardboard boxes for years, and that rubbish occupied nearly every square inch of livable space in her small San Juan Capistrano condominium. Everything reeked of urine, trash and, possibly, dead rats.
"I haven't seen any rats run out at me, so I don't think there's anything alive here," said John Drews of Orange County Vector Control, balancing himself with a hand flat on a wall as he made his way through the trash. "You can definitely smell the dead."
"There's a lot of dead," agreed Darren Johnson, a fire-prevention specialist with the Orange County Fire Authority, following behind him.
The two men are part of the Orange County Task Force on Hoarding, made up of numerous agencies that pool resources and information. Social services, mental-health specialists, public-safety agencies, animal and vector control band together to look for ways to handle severe cases, putting hoarders and their relatives in contact with the services they need.
Johnson could be termed a first responder.
Because of medical calls and fire-hazard concerns, fire officials are often the initial contact with a hoarder.
Homes can become so cluttered getting in and out can be all but impossible, making fire- fighting a real challenge. Johnson's role includes putting hoarders in contact with the services they need – including mental-health professionals – and relaying important details to firefighters in the field.
"It's not that we weren't concerned about it before, we just didn't consider it an illness," Johnson said. "Without intervention of a mental-health clinician or therapist, they can't do it."
Each month, Johnson reviews about a dozen new cases. A few are considered severe. Fire danger is his primary concern, he said, but he's learned to look for out-of-the-box solutions.
"They've been hoarding for 20 years; I don't need them to clean it up in two weeks," he said. "It's such a secretive community because everyone is embarrassed and sometimes they stall when they need help."
ASHAMED OF HER HOME
No one was allowed in the house where Michelle Scott grew up with her mother, Gillian Cannon. When Scott's friends would come over she'd be sitting on the electrical box out front to meet them so they didn't have to enter the home.
"I think it was just unsaid," she said. "There was a point where I just didn't want people to see how we lived."
She had no idea what a hoarder was back then, that it was a manifestation of obsessive compulsive behavior, or that her mother suffered from it.
Now 48, Scott sat on the same electrical box while a four-man cleaning crew tackled the second-story condominium.
No one but her mother had been allowed inside for 10 years.
Scott, her aunt and a family friend tried interventions to get the place cleaned, but they never got very far.
"She wanted no part of an intervention or help; she said she just wanted to be left alone," said Cheryl Larson, 68, a former neighbor and family friend. "We just came to the same conclusion that she was going to die up there."
After her mother died in January, Scott hired Steri-Clean Inc., a company that specializes in hoarding cleanups. Crews wore hazardous-material suits and gas masks.
Scott said she felt saddened, anxious and relieved this week as crews dug deeper.
Johnson knows cleanups can unearth forgotten items and old emotions. Though it was Scott's mother who hoarded the items, Johnson stays close and makes sure she handles it emotionally.
Inside, Scott found knickknacks in the same spots where they had been when she was a child: "It's like a time capsule to the late '80s."
NEW STRATEGIES TO HELP
Citations have been the strategy of choice for years, but Johnson said he's trying to find different solutions.
"I've learned over the last six years to make friends as a person, not enforcement," he said. "It's not a badge at the door who knows what they're going through."
One woman from Irvine, for example, showed slow progress in clearing small areas of her home, but Johnson was concerned that the woman smoked in a cluttered bed.
Johnson purchased electronic cigarettes for her. "We give them every tool they need," he said.
Access to the resident also permits Johnson to learn more about the home, and enter that information into the department's system. That way firefighters know what entrances are blocked, what exits are available, and what areas to avoid in case of a fire.
He relishes the small successes and gladly directs people to other services. For example, a group in Buena Park provides support for hoarders and their relatives. In some cases, child protective services or adult services get involved. Mental health must also be addressed.
But not all are success stories.
In November 2011, Doris Walker-Smith and her husband, Jack Pierson Smith, died in a fire that consumed their Dana Point home.
Johnson said he had made repeated attempts to contact the couple, but was rejected. Fire officials suspect the books and newspapers stacked high helped fuel the fast-moving fire.
PERSISTENCE IS THE KEY
The key is the first contact – and persistence, Johnson said. In one case, he has been unable to get the homeowner to answer the door. From the outside, the home looks like any other on the block, but he notices tell-tale signs.
The front door looks like it hasn't been opened in years and all of the windows are blocked. He leaves his business card in the mailbox and hopes the resident will call him.
Scott said she wished she'd known of the task force years ago, but was glad to receive help after her mother passed away.
Inside Cannon's home, crews found an indented space in the kitchen, were the trash didn't reach as high and where, they believe, Cannon slept. One of the two rooms in the back had remained untouched and uncluttered, free from bottles and debris that filled the rest of the condo – Scott's childhood bedroom.
Cleanups can be an emotional and financial burden, but Johnson said the task force can provide hoarders and families with support groups and services to provide financial and emotional aid. Some families cannot afford the costs, he said, and digging through years of hoarded items can unearth deep issues as well.
Scott remembers, for example, having a rough relationship with her mother. "I was not an easy child, and she was not an easy mother," she said.
She watched workers digging through her mother's home, hauling out a seemingly unending parade of rubbish. She wondered aloud if it was one last act of teen-age rebellion that led to her chosen career – interior design.
Our mission is to help those afflicted with this disorder and to provide them with the tools and skills needed to live a clutter free life. We offer understanding, trust and hope in a caring, compassionate and discreet environment, while providing the quality of care our clients expect and deserve.
From the initial contact, through cleanup and on-going support, our desire is to help our clients live a better life physically and emotionally.