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Predictably, Paxton's own home in the Museum District, where he lives with his wife and child, is uncluttered.
M att Paxton squeezes past piles of clothing, boxes of paperwork, overflowing trash and shopping bags full of Christmas ornaments. It's early morning in this heavily cluttered house west of Richmond, and Paxton calls an impromptu meeting with his two muscled crew members, the home-owner, and her daughter and son-in-law.
"I just want to make sure we all celebrate how much progress Wendy* made yesterday," Paxton says, nodding toward the homeowner, a sturdy woman with short red hair. "Monday we didn't even know there was a piano in her living room. Now Wendy can see the piano and her fireplace for the first time in 16 years." He reaches out to give Wendy a hug, and her eyes water as she grasps for a tissue.
At one time Wendy's house was a minimalist's dream, with a simple open floor plan and a white-on-white palette. But now the house is crammed with books, magazines, stacks of paperwork and box after box of the skin-care products she sells. Since clutter interferes with Wendy's housekeeping, mold has bloomed in the basement, and ivy is growing through the walls and into the house. Her once-white carpet is gray with black splotches, and cobwebs and dust cover her many bookcases. Paxton and his crew carry boxes to Wendy, who opens them, fingering each scrap of paper and decorative figurine, fretting over whether to keep it, donate it, toss it, or offer it in a yard sale. Paxton gently prods: "These books are moldy, so they're trash, right?"
The 35-year-old Paxton has come a long way since he first began cleaning houses four years ago.
"I didn't even know what hoarding was then," Paxton admits. Now he's among the nation's leading experts on tidying the houses of hoarders and helping the owners battle their addiction to collecting. Paxton is a chatty guy with sandy brown hair who used to race bicycles, but now he doesn't have time to exercise. His company, Clutter Cleaner, is busy cleaning extremely messy houses across the country, many of which have been featured on A&E's hit television show, Hoarders .
Paxton has tackled houses full of dead cats, rats and dogs. He has worked with food hoarders, pornography hoarders and hoarders who keep every scrap of their garbage. Soiled adult diapers, cockroach-covered kitchen counters and used hypodermic needles don't bother him. "This isn't bad at all — I've seen worse," he reassures clients, as he wades through excrement-laced muck on floors and opens refrigerators full of rotting food. And that's not just soothing patter. After three years of handling what he calls "aggressive" hoarder jobs, Paxton has pretty much seen it all.
His crew is made up of friendly — and strong — young guys. They don't look like recovering addicts, but Paxton tends to hire people who, like himself, have struggled with gambling, alcoholism and other addictions. "They really get the shame associated with hoarding," he says. "We've all hit rock bottom. We've all been there ourselves, and we don't judge." He encourages his workers to chat with clients as part of the therapeutic process that accompanies de-cluttering.
Hoarding has been linked with both Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and Attention-Deficit Disorder (ADD). Psychologists are only beginning to understand the mental issues, but experts agree that therapy is a critical part of recovery. As a former gambling addict, Paxton instinctively knows when to push his clients and when to prop them up. "It's all mental," he says. "Anyone can clean a house. But without treatment they're just going to fill it up again."
H elping hoarders wasn't Paxton's life goal. He grew up in Richmond, attending high school in Midlothian and splitting his time between his mother's house in Bon Air and his father's home in Church Hill. His grandmother's sister, who lived in the Museum District, was his beloved "eccentric aunt," who fed stray animals and saved everything.
"I must have cleaned that house 20 times when I was growing up," Paxton says. His aunt's habit of leaving the door open so raccoons could come in and eat was only one of her quirks. She saved plastic newspaper bags in case the delivery boy wanted to reuse them. She saved toilet paper rolls for craft projects at church. But the items never made it to their destinations, and her house filled up. It was classic hoarder behavior, Paxton realizes now, but at the time, nobody recognized hoarding as a mental disorder. "We just thought she was crazy," he says.
Paxton majored in business administration at the University of Mary Washington and embarked on a management career in Richmond that included helping design triathlon wetsuits for Xterra, which sells various kinds of triathlon apparel and gear.
In 1999, he moved to Lake Tahoe to manage the computer database at the Caesars Palace hotel and casino. Adapting to his new surroundings, he started gambling after work and soon developed a habit. Within six months, Paxton was $40,000 in debt. When his bookie called in the money, Paxton asked if he could make a partial payment.
* Editor's note: Wendy is a pseudonym used to protect the privacy of the hoarder featured in this article.
"He said, ‘Sure, come on in and we'll talk about it,'" Paxton says. When Paxton arrived, the bookie broke his nose and threatened him with worse if he missed another payment. That night, Paxton skipped town, heading home to Richmond, where a friend got him a job at a marketing company. The firm immediately sent Paxton to Chicago, where he worked for six months to pay off his gambling debt. Then he returned to Richmond to open an office for the company.
A few years later, Paxton again moved on, this time helping to start Xterra. In 2003, he left that company to start his own business, Sandal Saver, which produced liquid flip-flop cleaner. "That was my [equivalent of] MBA school," Paxton says. "And it cost about as much as MBA school, too." He ran Sandal Saver for three years. "It didn't do too well," he concedes. He started cleaning houses in 2006.
Clutter Cleaner initially focused on elderly people who had decided to downsize or move into assisted-living facilities. Paxton found that their homes often were stuffed with a lifetime of possessions, and they had no idea how to sort through them. Most movers refused such time-consuming jobs, but for Paxton, they inspired his "a-ha" moment.
"We were fighting to bid on other jobs, but nobody wanted these," he says. In addition to seeing a niche, Paxton realized he could charge more for handling the big, messy cleanups. He's been doing it ever since.
In an attempt to garner publicity for his new company, Paxton contacted Oprah Winfrey's on-air organizing expert, suggesting that he appear on the show to talk about hoarding. The show referred him to A&E, which hired him for a new television series. Now in its second season, Hoarders is the network's most-watched program, with an estimated 3.5 million viewers per episode. Paxton has handled 10 cleanups for the show so far and expects to handle another six during the show's upcoming third season. He is also working with a major cable network to produce his own show about the Clutter Cleaner crew.
"Matt is excellent," says Dr. Suzanne Chabaud, a New Orleans psychologist who specializes in OCD and hoarding and often works with Paxton on Hoarders . Chabaud points out that because hoarding is a mental disorder, a cleanup process is more about psychology than cleaning. "Matt has walked into land mines in the past and knows what to do and not to do," she says. "He's learned so many things that are close to what a psychotherapist would do."
For example, Paxton won't take a job unless the hoarder is on board. Typically, he hears from family members — an adult child, for example, who needs help cleaning a mother's house. Usually family members are worried and frustrated. They want Paxton to help with the home. But he explains that the cleanup must include helping the hoarder, who needs therapy, family support and lots of patience. If the family wants to clean the house without the hoarder's consent or participation, Paxton says no.
One day in June, Paxton visited a house in Ashland to evaluate it for a cleanup. After arriving, he met outside with a social worker who was trying to decide whether to remove the three school-aged children living there.
Like a lot of hoarder houses, this one was surrounded by a yard that reeked of dog waste, urine and rotting food. Paxton waded through muck and around old furniture and bags of trash to get to the backdoor. It was propped open, allowing the family cats to slink in and out.
Inside, the kitchen stank. The sink was full of greasy brown water, and pots and plates of rotting food cluttered the countertop. Above the sink hung a spiral of flypaper, dead flies stuck to it three deep while live ones circled. Cobwebs that had entrapped now-dead cockroaches clung to corners. Paxton crunched across the littered floor and into the living room.
With a friendly smile and a handshake, Paxton introduced himself to the homeowner, a grandmother resting in a recliner in front of a blaring television. "So, this is where you sleep and eat?" Paxton asked casually, and the grandmother nodded. She explained that her son and his wife also lived there with their three children.
"Do you want the house cleaned up?" he asked. She said yes, pointing upstairs, where the real mess had accumulated. Paxton asked if he and the social worker could look around, and she nodded.
Upstairs, the floor sagged under piles of newspapers, food wrappers, blankets and old mattresses. A few dogs wandered around. Their excrement littered the bedding scattered across the floor. In the corner, in front of another noisy television, a small blonde head was nestled under a blanket. Amid the overwhelming filth of the room — so stifling that breathing was difficult — a 10-year-old child slept.
Afterward, Paxton and the social worker talked outside. The social worker had met the children, and they seemed happy and well-fed, despite the condition of the house. The children weren't considered high-risk, so they would stay put while the social worker found out if state funds could be used to pay for a cleanup.
A few weeks later, the bad news arrived: The municipal budget was too tight. In the past, Paxton got a lot of work from local governments. "Now with limited funds, they can't put it toward hoarding because there's always something worse," he says.
Paxton's work does not come cheap. He charges anywhere from $2,000 to $25,000 for a hoarder cleanup, unless A&E decides the job is gnarly enough to film. In that case, the cleaning and therapy are free to the client (the TV network pays Clutter Cleaner).
Paxton spends at least several days on each job, allowing the hoarder to drive the action. "It's critical that they are the ones in control," Paxton says. Sometimes Paxton spends weeks with a hoarder, going through clutter one item at a time. Or he may leave "homework," boxes that the hoarder is supposed to sift through alone. On mirrors and doors, he posts encouraging signs that read: You can keep it clean! Follow through!
Recovery is challenging, and the majority of hoarders backslide, according to experts. "It's a serious addiction, like alcoholism or bulimia," Paxton says. "And it's uglier because you can see it."
These days Paxton is swamped. His new TV show and the third season of Hoarders are in production. On any given week, he may find himself with a film crew in a far-flung state or working a regular job somewhere on the East Coast. Increasingly, Paxton is asked to speak at trade shows, including the Richmond Home Show last spring. He helps develop educational materials for others who work with hoarders. His cell phone buzzes incessantly.
Although Paxton has managed to add TV glamour to his career, helping hoarders can mean crossing over to a dark side. Most hoarders have experienced a traumatic "trigger" event, and Paxton encourages them to share their stories of abuse and loss. He makes a point of leaving emotional stress on the job site when he heads home to his wife, Sarah, and his infant son, Cooper. Still, he says, it's difficult to put aside his worry for children living in the filth of a hoarder house.
And hoarders can cause more tangible trouble. Paxton has been threatened, sued and served with a restraining order. When he found a sizeable collection of child pornography in one house, he called the police. The hoarder ended up serving prison time. The individual has since been released and recently asked Clutter Cleaner to revisit his house, which he had filled up again. Paxton declined.
As Paxton spends the day with Wendy, he coughs frequently, covering his mouth with his arm as he works. He and his crew were vaccinated recently for tuberculosis and Hepatitis A and B. The air inside hoarder houses is dusty, sometimes toxic, and Paxton doesn't always wear his facemask. Nor does he always wear gloves or his protective Tyvek suit, though he works daily with animal and human waste, blood, used needles, dead animals, mold, cockroaches and rats. "I'm starting to worry about my lung quality," he says. "I may need to take a year or two off from cleaning at some point."
Apart from mold and dust, Wendy's house isn't dirty — just cluttered. Paxton's crew has been working there for two days, and now they're leaving her with three clean rooms and a stack of boxes that she is to sort through on her own. He promises to call to check on her progress before he returns in two weeks. As he and his crew prepare to leave, Wendy gives each man a hug. As they drive away, she is standing at the door waving.
On the road back to Richmond, Paxton works his cell phone and sucks on a root beer. "I don't think she'll get to those boxes," he says. "But she will keep those rooms we did clean." He thinks that Wendy will struggle with following through by herself and that when the crew returns, they will end up cajoling her into finishing the boxes.
Paxton can't wait to get home to Sarah. They met when both were volunteering at Comfort Zone Camp, a bereavement camp for children. Six months later, he asked her to marry him, and now they live in his great-aunt's house — the one he helped put back in order so many times as a kid. These days, it stays clean.