Appearing at the Richmond Home & Garden show this weekend, “Hoarders” host is lucky to be able to help people for a living
Matt Paxton, a Richmond native, owner of Clutter Cleaner, and host of A&E’s Hoarders, warned me that he was a talker, and he was clearly down-to-earth and passionate about his work. I interviewed him by phone this week, back in Richmond, as he picked his dogs up from day care. He even mentioned the fair amount of business he gets from gay couples.
How did you get involved with the show Hoarders from here in Richmond? Do you still live here?
I was born and raised, here, and I live downtown. I’ve had the company [Clutter Cleaner] in Richmond for 5 years. An Oprah producer saw a video of us, and we thought we might go on the show, but figured out it wasn’t worth it. There were just four of us here in Richmond then, we weren’t ready to go national or anything. Six months later, someone from A&E called. The producer from Oprah had referred us to them. Once we got on TV, it just rolled. It’s been on a year and half now. Every time we’re on, the phone goes nuts [at his company]. About once a month, we go somewhere outside of Richmond to help a family that needs our services.
How do people get on the show?
Families will call them in, social services. Most of the time, it’s not the actual hoarder. We have about 100 houses backlogged. 1 out of 20 houses we look at, we put on TV. We want someone, who with therapy, who will have a chance of being helped. If they’re not willing to do therapy, we don’t put them on the show anymore. We want them to succeed and without that, there’s no way it will work long term. All services: cleaning, organizing, and six months of therapy are done for free. That’s about $50,000 worth of free services.
Can you talk to us about the difference between people who just have clutter and true hoarding behavior?
We all have hoarding tendencies, but when it takes over your life… Collecting is something you do with family. Hoarding is the only thing you have in your life. They don’t choose to live this way; it’s not something they want to do. It’s a result of something horrific happening in their life. Their relief is the hoarding. They put up a physical wall, because they don’t want to have to deal with people. Stuff doesn’t leave you, stuff doesn’t hit you, doesn’t die on you. The stuff becomes their friends, their life. Depression is a major part of hoarding.
Do you come from hoarders in your family? I know I have them in mine. I read you started your company after helping your grandmother move.
Most of us do. Because it’s on TV, people are able to talk about it now. I had an aunt that was a hoarder and I spent summers cleaning up her house. I didn’t grow up to be a clutter cleaner. That wasn’t what I went to school for. I didn’t know what it was then. We are not psychologists. Our process is a little different, but we try to treat people with respect. Some of the organizers don’t like our tactics. We don’t coddle them [the hoarders]. We make them take responsibility for their actions. All of our guys are from that background of addiction. We tell our hoarders that. We’re not judging them. Hoarders haven’t had family in their homes for 5-10 years. They trust us enough to let in so we become like family. It’s extremely emotional.
What happens after the show? Is there follow up? How do you know if you’ve helped or not?
You have to assume you aren’t going to make a difference. 85% will fall back, psychologists say. I guarantee if there’s no after-care, it won’t work. This is behavior that’s learned over 20-30 years. Our cleaners will come back once a week for a few weeks; wean them off the emotional friendship. You can’t just peace-out on them. It’s another loss in their mind. It could actually make it worse.
What’s the weirdest thing that someone has hoarded?
A major porn collection—that guy went to jail. 6 feet of human poop. 100 dead cats. A bag of rats—somebody might need them, the guy said. Something I’ve never seen before—one guy photocopied every dollar bill he’d ever spent. He said he really wanted to remember those dollars. We do the worst of the worst in the country. We’ve been known for that.
Do the types of things people hoard differ geographically?
It comes down to how you were raised. East coasters tend to save history. They have families that have been around for multiple generations with more stuff to save. They are saving memories. Hoarders do 1 of 2 things: save things from the past or save things for the future. They never really do anything in the present. West coasters tend to plan more for the future. But they all believe they’re helping someone.
We don’t tend to see Latino or African American families. They often have multiple generations in the home and don’t let the hoarding get this bad. Economics do play a part. Mostly its 60 year old white women.
What advice would you give to people who want the hoarders in their life to make a change?
You have to be patient with your family. Just because you want them to change doesn’t mean they’re ready. They have to hit rock bottom. There have been times we’ve met the hoarder–it’s not time. We have to tell families to wait…channel the love correctly. The louder the fight, the greater the love. This is very important: most hoarders do this because they don’t have control over much of their life, so this is what they control. You can’t force them into anything. We uncover some deep, hardcore family secrets. I’m a writing a book about this exact subject now.
What was your most frustrating show?
It will be on in 2 weeks. Lady in Oregon. One of the most dangerous houses I’ve been in. She’d been so deeply abused by men. We use charm on purpose when working with them. But it didn’t matter what my process was, it wasn’t going to work. She had put up a huge wall, had such a deep hatred for people in general. We had to tell the family they had to stop trying to fix it. Not to give up on her, but to find a new way to welcome her into the family. No hope is a horrible thing to say to someone.
What are you looking forward to about the Richmond Home & Garden show this weekend?
People coming by and just talking to us. We love talking to families; hearing the manageable, realistic, day-to-day challenges we all have with clutter. We like to hear the family dynamic. All my guys will be there. Last year we couldn’t even afford to go to the show, and this year we’re the headliner. We’re lucky we get to help people for a living.
Anything you wish interviewers would ask but never do?
I want people to know that most hoarders are good people. They’ve had a rough go, but no one’s really helped them. The show can paint them as freaks. It’s TV. The show can be a bummer, but they’re funny. We laugh and cry. We are very lucky.
We do have a following with our business with older male gay couples. One guy wanted to get married but his partner had never seen his house. There was a lot of shame. We went through it, cleaned it, and now his partner finally knows him and there’s no more secrets. They’re married now.
The Richmond Home & Garden Show, the area’s largest and longest running home and garden show, is at the Richmond Raceway Complex Friday, March 5, through Sunday March 7, 2010. Tickets are $8 for adults and free for children 16 and under. Paxton will appear both Saturday and Sunday at 2 pm.
Hoarders is on Mondays at 10pm on A&E. Filming for Season 3 starts in three weeks with plans to do more shooting locally in Richmond and DC. Paxton has shot a pilot with A&E for his own show about his Richmond-based company, Clutter Cleaner.
Matt Paxton is married to his wife Sarah and has a 3 month old son.
Holly Gordon is an advocate for LGBT equality in Richmond, VA, volunteering with Equality Virginia, ROSMY, and other community organizations. She works in higher education.
Holly Gordon is the Lifestyle section editor and a board member of GayRVA. An advocate for GLBT equality and lover of all things RVA, she works in non-profit and is a freelance writer.
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