Hidden In Their Homes: Hoarders Live In A Private Nightmare

By Alan Gionet

AURORA, Colo. (CBS4) – “You don’t always know you have a problem while you have it,” said Lin Nicholson as she sat on her bed in her … living room. Around it were piles of newspapers and magazines, books and trinkets; boxes of things and things in boxes.

(credit: CBS)

CBS4’s Alan Gionet interviews Lin Nicholson in her Aurora home. (credit: CBS)

“At some point there’s a startling realization — either by you or by somebody else — you can’t invite people into your house,” said Nicholson.

The bed was moved into the living room about six months ago as the floor-to-ceiling piles of boxes in the bedrooms pushed her out. The basement is full. The garage is full. There are items stored under tarps in the backyard.

(credit: CBS)

(credit: CBS) (credit: CBS) (credit: CBS)

“I don’t have a chair, other than the one you’re sitting in,” she said to me about the straight-backed dining chair I sat in near the bed.

The kitchen has dishes piled up. The sink doesn’t work. The stove and dishwasher are gone. Nicholson hasn’t cooked a meal in anything but the microwave in 16 or 17 years.

Nicholson is lost.

“Half the time I don’t know where anything is. I don’t know where my shoes are, they get lost in the house. I don’t know where my clothes are.”

Statistics indicate 2 to 5 percent of the population are hoarders like Nicholson. But Loretta Trujillo, who is trying to get help for people like Lin, thinks the number is higher.

Loretta Trujillo (credit: CBS)

Loretta Trujillo (credit: CBS)

“It’s such a well-kept secret, because hoarders don’t want anyone to know they are and they don’t want anyone coming into their home so they try to keep it as secret as long as possible.”

Trujillo is program manager for the Chores program with the Senior Resource Center. She tries to work on the problem with a little grant money to cover a multi-county area, but the numbers of hoarders is overwhelming.

“I received $59,000 and I’ve already spent $40,000 of it in four months and my concern for the next grant cycle is I won’t have any money available,” she said.

Trujillo contracts with people like Jennifer Hanzlick of Clutter Trucker. They come in and clean.

Jennifer Hanzlick (credit: CBS)

Jennifer Hanzlick (credit: CBS)

“It’s a community problem whether people know it or not,” said Hanzlick.”It’s not uncommon to have several government agencies involved in just one person … the judicial system, you have animal control, human services, first responders, code enforcement.”

Nicholson has health problems including an injury from being hit by a crossing bar in an accident, chronic fatigue syndrome and other issues. She has gotten counseling and now realizes she is a hoarder.

While many wish to hide, she agreed to talk to CBS4.

“We don’t want this,” she said. “But because of this mental illness, this is what happens.”

With many hoarders, it starts with loss. For Nicholson, the loss of a beloved cat got her started ordering figurines that looked like the cat.

Then there was the death of her mother who had lived in the home.

Then the death of her husband.

Storage units got full. Then the units needed to be emptied and it all ended up in the house.

At one point, the boxes created a fortress on the front porch.

“And, it was like I was barricading myself in,” said Nicholson. “And I really liked that, I loved having all those boxes out there, because it was like my maze, you couldn’t get to me.”

(credit: CBS)

(credit: CBS)

Her losses created “this desire to fill up this hole that you have in your heart.”

“You feel empty inside and you go out and buy things to sort of fill up that pain,” she said.

Now cleaning it is beyond her. She no longer goes out much or invites people in.

“This has been so awful for me,” said Nicholson. “And I’ve been in this mess for like, I couldn’t believe it, but it’s been like 15 years now.”

Hanzlick tells stories of people evicted, taken away by ambulance, dropped off at places like Denver Health Medical Center and their homes cleared.

She and Trujillo are trying to do something different with limited resources.

“So many people think a job like this is just take everything clean it up throw it out and there’s the expectation. But that’s not the way it works with this mental illness.”

There are compromises as she and her team clean up. Some of it would go to recyclers, some to donate for others to use, some to the trash. They take the newspapers, but bargain with Nicholson to leave the magazines for now.

“90 percent of people after a cleanout, especially without mental health, will go back to the way it was,” said Hanzlick.

They have to participate in the process.

“Compromise because she still has to be in control, at the end of the day this is still her stuff.”

“It’s that respect, that dignity, you don’t have just a box in the home, or clothing or paper, you have a human being in there,” said Trujillo.

As Hanzlick’s team sorted, Lin watched and bargained. She hoped to be able to move the bed out of the living room and into a basement bedroom. Then maybe get a stove and dishwasher again.

(credit: CBS)

(credit: CBS)

The boxes that filled the upstairs bedrooms would have to stay because Trujillo didn’t have that much of a budget.

“I have to tell you, the last 17 years has been horrible,” said Nicholson, “Just absolutely horrible. A lot of it spent alone.”

Follow-up: After the cleaning, Lin Nicholoson’s home is looking a lot better. While much of the clutter still remains on the second floor, cleaners have helped Lin restore the main floor of her home and a lower level bedroom.

(credit: CBS)

(credit: CBS)

They will be helping her move her bed from the living room to the bedroom. They’ve also helped resolve some of the clogged plumbing.

(credit: CBS)

(credit: CBS)

The lower-level bathroom is clean. Lin hopes to get a stove and dishwasher again as well so she can prepare meals.

(credit: CBS)

(credit: CBS)

She’s been eating microwaved food for years and has not cooked on a stove for “16 or 17 years.”

(credit: CBS)

(credit: CBS)

LINKS:

Loretta Trujillo’s Chores Program at Senior Resource Center:  Please call the Chore Service Hotline to schedule an appointment 303-235-6952 or email Loretta Trujillo at ltrujillo@SRCAging.org

Jennifer Hanzlick’s Clutter Trucker biz:  http://www.cluttertrucker.com/ or call  720 982-7856.

Alan Gionet is anchor of the CBS4 Morning News and reports on a wide variety of issues and “Good Question” stories. He started at CBS4 in 1994. Follow Alan on Twitter @AlanGTV.

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