Clutter and Chaos: The Messy Lives of Hoarders

For those who can stomach the mess, A&E’s long-running series Hoarders is somewhat addictive. The series gives people an inside look at the heartbreaking and grim reality of people with a hoarding disorder. While we are grateful not to live in a house filled with garbage, we feel for the people seen struggling on the show.

Ray / Terry / Police Vehicle / Hoarders’ Home.
Source: A&E

Some participants handle the decluttering and cleaning process better than others, but the episodes don’t always have a happy ending. While the series aims to help people with their disorder, people don’t always cope well once the cameras are gone, and they have to continue the hard work.

She Went Back to Hoarding

While Hoarders shows massive cleanouts in short periods, experts believe that those forced to throw everything away will return to their old ways. That was the case for Betty from Season 1, whom fans remember because her husband was removed from their home by Adult Protective Services.

An image of a walkway from a living room to a kitchen.
Source: A&E

She had to clean the space for her husband to come home. However, Betty was one of the more difficult hoarders, and her new way of life didn’t last too long after the episode. She felt the attention from neighbors negatively impacted her, and she went back to hoarding a month later.

The Interior Designer Lost Her Home

Most people would think that an interior designer would take pride in the beauty of their home, but Sandra Cowart struggled to let things go. In the Season 9 episode, Cowart’s 31-room mansion was filled to the brim with clutter. The Tudor-style home had mold, trash, and too much furniture.

An interior shot of Sandra’s home.
Source: A&E

Although Cowart owned the house for 40 years, the bank foreclosed on it. She couldn’t keep up with her loan payments, and the new owners had to clean up her mess. Cowart used to be a successful designer who loved hosting guests in the ‘90s, but she fell on hard times.

Police Were Called to This Home

A Season 8 episode that featured Cora Belk (who went by the name Peggy) caused a building inspector to lose his job. Belk’s hoard of filth and dead animal carcasses led the city to deem her house uninhabitable. After the episode aired, viewers called the local police about the dead animals displayed on the show.

A photo of a pig found in Belk’s home.
Source: YouTube

Local Code Enforcement Officer and Building Inspector Ron Sieh saw the home and participated in the program without telling authorities. He must have wanted his 15 minutes of fame, but it backfired, and he resigned from his job. Belk was also fined and charged with a misdemeanor.

His Family Was Too Late

After so many disturbing situations, Carol from Season 11 surprised fans with her cold attitude towards her husband Dave, who had previously lived in the home with his late first wife. Her possessions took over the house, leaving Dave with only a small space to sit with his oxygen tank.

A still of Carol during an episode.
Source: A&E

Fans wanted Dave to divorce Carol and kick her out of the house after seeing her fight with his children throughout the episode. Although it seemed like they were on a path to healing, it was revealed that Dave died, and no one in the family was speaking to Carol.

A Woman and Her Rotting Pumpkin

While many people hoard garbage and personal items, Jill kept food past its expiration date. Her refrigerator was so bad that any new food was instantly contaminated. She also had a rotting pumpkin in her living room that was basically a puddle.

A portrait of Jill / A photo of the rotten pumpkin.
Source: A&E

Although her home was cleaned up on the show, a follow-up episode showed that Jill returned to hoarding food. Yet again, she had expired food in the fridge, and the rotting pumpkin was back in her living room. Jill started keeping food because she grew up poor and struggling.

His Story Ended in Murder

One of the most heartbreaking stories from the series was Season 3’s Glen Brittner. Before losing his wife, he had pet rats, but they eventually took over his home. Brittner saw the rats as his children, and he was in a lot of emotional pain.

A still of Glen Brittner in an episode.
Source: A&E

His story was more tragic because he was found tied to his wheelchair with a head wound after the episode. The police didn’t see signs of forced entry, but items were missing from his home. His family believes someone took advantage of his kindness, and the case was never solved.

One Brother Died While Filming

Elderly brothers Ray and Tony shared a home in San Francisco that was filled with Ray’s clutter. The house could have been worth around $2 million if the mess hadn’t destroyed it. Ray would walk around town with a smile but got sad returning to the chaos.

A still of Ray crying.
Source: A&E

The brothers went on the show because the mess almost caused their home and a neighbor’s house to burn down. Sadly, Tony passed away while filming the episode, but Ray had to power through the cleanup to keep his home.

A Terminally Ill Woman Didn’t Have Much Time

After finding out about her terminal cancer, Laura’s hoarding only worsened. In the Season 3 episode, she could only sleep on the couch because she couldn’t get through to her room. Laura’s daughter said she had ruined their lives because of the hoarding.

A portrait of Laura in a still from the show.
Source: A&E

Her children’s health suffered because of the mess, but Laura’s family felt hopeful about the future by the end of the cleanup. Sadly, Laura passed away shortly after filming. Her health continued to decline, but she mended her relationship with her family.

She Lost Her Child

After years of hoarding, Augustine lost custody of her son Jason. Although Child Protective Services didn’t clear him to return home, Jason traveled to help his mom clean their house. In the episode, Jason thanked his mom for supporting him even though things got tough.

Augustine and Jason in a still from the show.
Source: A&E

Unfortunately, Augustine didn’t keep her home clean after the episode and Jason didn’t return to her house. He shared that growing up with his mom’s hoarding impacted him. He said he was bullied for his mother’s issues and didn’t want to see Augustine again.

Her Situation Got Worse

In Season 2, married couple Dennis and Nadene lived in an awful situation. Dennis was depressed and told his daughter he wanted to take his life. Nadene said he threatened to kill her, and their daughter feared for both of them. Unfortunately, things got worse.

A headshot of Dennis during an episode.
Source: A&E

Adult Protective Service became involved when Dennis wouldn’t leave his room, which was full of weapons. His gun collection was removed, but Dennis’ depression only got worse. Their home also got messier because Nadene didn’t like doing dishes. It went back to a horrible state.

Cats Became Victims

Season 6’s Terry first started hoarding as a child after witnessing her father’s death. But instead of possessions, she hoarded cats. Fans are used to seeing some gross things, but they weren’t prepared to see the bodies of about 100 cats in Terry’s freezer.

An image of Terry and her cats in a still from the show.
Source: A&E

During the episode, she had 50 living cats in her home, but the team only managed to save 18. Sadly, the rest were too sick to survive. Terry said that hoarding cats was her way to “save something.” She was never charged with animal cruelty.

The Doll Hoarder Was a Criminal

While some people might not find this to be a surprise, Patrick O’Shannahan from Season 3 spent time in prison. He reportedly tried to sexually assault a young college student. He was also charged for the unlawful physical contact of an older woman.

A mugshot of Patrick O’Shannahan.
Source: YouTube

During the episode, he struggled to part with his dolls because they reminded him of his young neighbor, who passed away. Due to the circumstances surrounding O’Shannahan’s background, A&E removed the episode from all platforms and replaced it with a different one.

Their Child Suffered

Usually, families and children of hoarders reach out to the show for help. In a Season 2 episode, Deborah thought her children would be taken away again, which didn’t happen. However, the family went through dark times because of her hoarding.

An image of Deborah and her family during an episode.
Source: A&E

Deborah’s son wrote on Reddit that his mom went back to hoarding after the episode, causing his parents to get divorced. He also said that he started hoarding as well. Sadly, Deborah revealed that her home had been foreclosed, and she couldn’t manage to change her ways.

They Often Experienced Abuse, Trauma, or Neglect

When looking at the backstories of people featured on the series, producers found that many of them had experienced trauma in their lives. In some cases, it was childhood trauma or abuse, and other times the trigger was a single event, like the sudden death of a loved one.

A couple’s messy bedroom in a still from the show.
Source: A&E

The experts on the show find a clear connection with these past traumas to how their hoarding manifests. Sometimes the participants keep things they connect to a memory as a coping mechanism. But there have been cases where there wasn’t a trigger.

It Can Run in the Family

A common theme on Hoarders is that a family member is directly affected by their relative’s hoarding. Sometimes producers discover that there are multiple hoarders in a family. Some professionals argue that it could be genetic, and children develop the same hoarding tendencies.

A woman sits in between boxes in an episode.
Source: A&E

The series also showed that if two hoarders live in the same place, they can exacerbate the hoarding disorder of their relative. It can cause a vicious cycle, where each person makes the other person worse. It’s always sad to see these episodes.

The Show Changed When It Moved to Lifetime

Hoarders initially aired on A&E, but it was canceled after six seasons. The following year, Lifetime picked up the series, and the show changed to focus less on the gross factor. Instead, Lifetime viewers wanted to hear more about the human stories and healing process.

A still from an episode.
Source: A&E

After two seasons on Lifetime, A&E took the show back. Viewers noticed that they returned to the gruesome details of the hoarders. A&E aired unseen footage from past episodes with even more disturbing details to win viewers over. It was a significant change from the Lifetime version.

Many People Want to Be on the Show

Hoarding is mostly an invisible disease unless you live with one, so many people think it is not a common problem. Surprisingly, many people are willing to have a camera crew come to their homes and reveal the mess they have been living in.

A shot of a participant’s house.
Source: A&E

According to Jodi Flynn, the producer of A&E’s Hoarders, the show receives more submissions than they can handle. Sometimes the hoarder applies, but it is usually a friend or family member asking for help. Flynn and the crew prioritize the cases that need urgent help.

The Show Pays for the Cleanup

One of the main reasons why people want to get on the series is because of finances. In exchange for appearing on the show, the network pays for the cleanup, experts, and therapists. For some people, these costs are a source of stress.

A participant’s home after cleaning / The same home before cleaning.
Source: Realtor.com, Julian Price House / A&E

The show makes the steps more manageable, and it ensures that people are getting access to professional help. Flynn revealed that these cleanouts can cost tens of thousands of dollars. There are no costs to participants of the show.

Experts Have Mixed Feelings

In the hoarding therapy community, there are mixed reviews about the series. Some experts say the show’s portrayal is inaccurate and insulting to hoarders. Some say it exploits the participants and pushes the narrative that all hoarders are “societal outsiders.”

An exterior shot of a participant’s home.
Source: A&E

On the other hand, other experts say the show is an honest account of the condition. The amount of desperation someone must have to broadcast their problems to the world reflects how difficult the situation can be.

The Drama Is Slightly Manufactured

Like most reality shows, there is the question of authenticity. Most reality series will fabricate situations to heighten the drama, but Hoarders keeps it relatively truthful. Obviously, editors work their magic to make the show enjoyable, but it’s mostly accurate.

A woman speaks to the camera during an episode.
Source: A&E

The people on the show actually have hoarding problems, but there is some editing done to keep viewers watching. While we can’t say that the entire show is 100 percent authentic, it isn’t like other reality shows where the drama is all fake.

People Have Discovered Family Secrets

The content on Hoarders deals with serious emotional and physical baggage. Many participants suffer from anxiety and depression, making the decluttering process even more challenging. It makes them face their problems with their families and hoarding head-on. It can be a very emotional process.

A still from the show.
Source: A&E

In some cases, the process unearths some deep secrets. In a 2012 episode, Richard said his family refused to accept him, but he wasn’t being honest. His sister asked him to tell the truth about his life, causing him to come out as gay for the first time.

Animals Are a Huge Issue

When people picture a hoarder’s home, they usually think of piles of garbage. But many people hoard animals. Some people take in way more pets than they can feed or keep safe. It often leads to unsanitary conditions.

A woman takes care of a cat inside a participant’s home.
Source: A&E

However, some viewers are unaware that animal hoarding cases can result in criminal arrests. In a 2016 episode, Cora Belk was arrested for cruel treatment of an animal when authorities found the remains of various animals in her home. This type of hoarding is dangerous for humans and animals.

Many Disgusting Things Have Been Found

The concept of Hoarders is based on the inhabitable living conditions of those who suffer from hoarding disorders. However, sometimes the clutter is overshadowed by some truly disturbing discoveries. In some cases, people used buckets instead of the toilet.

A still of a cleanup scene during an episode.
Source: A&E

In other instances, they uncovered horribly moldy food, cat fecal matter, and animal remains. One of the most horrifying things found on the show was a mummified cat, who had died somewhere in the hoard, and had its body preserved like a mummy in a crevice.

There’s a Relapse Problem

While we would like to believe that every case on the show is a success story, that is far from the truth. The show follows a standard narrative: someone asks for help, there is some struggle, they agree to clean up, and then their house is made livable again.

A woman cries as she hugs her pets in a still from the show.
Source: A&E

Unfortunately, there is a high relapse rate once the cameras leave. Once people have their belongings removed, the impulse to collect things doesn’t disappear. According to A&E, four out of five people on the show return to hoarding because they don’t continue with therapy.

Most Hoarders Have Something in Common

Hoarders’ producer Matt Paxton revealed that most hoarders tend to be very caring in nature. He said that most people afflicted with this disorder have a common trait. To some extent, they are typically caregivers, which is different from the stereotype that they can’t take care of themselves.

A portrait of Maxx Paxton.
Source: A&E

Paxton said that many of the hoarders he has met through the show are teachers, social workers, or working in caregiving professions. It is a misconception that hoarders are mean, nasty people who isolate themselves from the world. He said they are actually cool people.

A Couple Received Complaints for Years

During the Season 10 premiere of Hoarders, couple Andy and Becky declared their “constitutional right to live however they choose.” Unfortunately, that meant packing their home and yard with piles of junk. The couple’s story was not news to their neighbors, who had complained for years.

A still of the couple during an episode from the show.
Source: A&E

Andy and Becky’s neighbors had been fighting with the county to force the couple to clean up. They had received many letters and could have faced jail time. The episode seemed to have a happy ending, with 60 tons of garbage removed from their home.

The Casting Form Asks Many Questions

For those who want their family member or friend to be on the show, they can apply through the A&E website. However, it isn’t a quick application. The form asks several questions to help producers understand the situation and weed out the less severe cases.

A still of a cleanup during an episode.
Source: A&E

People also have to provide photo evidence because producers have gotten fake entries before. Sometimes people just want 15 minutes of fame and don’t need the show’s help. People would reach out to producers in the early days to be on the series, but that has changed.

Most of the Work Takes Place off Camera

Since it takes more than an hour to clear out a hoarder’s home, most of the process isn’t aired on TV. There are plenty of steps in the process that happen behind the scenes to prepare the show’s professionals for the cleanup.

A woman tries to make her way through her room.
Source: A&E

Hoarders’ organizer Dorothy Breininger said she usually calls the participant to understand if they are ready to start the process and what they want to get out of the experience. She also figures out the logistics: for example, whether a tow truck or hazmat suits are needed.

The City Wanted to Tear Down This House

In a 2016 episode of the series, Wisconsin couple Roger and Ilona hoarded themselves out of their home. They were facing the loss of their property if they couldn’t clean it up. Unfortunately, the couple didn’t stop hoarding after the episode, and the city wanted to demolish the home.

A portrait of Ilona and Roger / An exterior shot of the home.
Source: YouTube

The city declared the home uninhabitable after discovering dozens of stray animals living in the house. In December 2019, their home had been officially condemned. The couple was heartbroken, but there was no way they could have moved back into it.

One Participant Felt Conned

Verna Carter was the subject of a 2012 episode of the series. She was described as a “hot-headed ex-cop, ex-drug trafficker, and ex-prison inmate who evaded laws against hoarding.” After her health landed her in the hospital, she was forced to clean her home.

An exterior shot of Verna Carter’s home.
Source: YouTube

Carter agreed to let Hoarder help, but she was apparently dissatisfied by their efforts. She claimed that the show never finished the process because they “ran out of trucks.” However, her neighbors said the crew was still hauling away garbage two months after filming because there was too much stuff.

Her Inspirational Story Caught the Show’s Attention

Fans of Hoarders will recognize Dorothy Breininger, one of the organizers featured on the show. After dedicating a year of her life and money to help an LA man clean out his home, she came to the producers’ attention. She helped the man avoid jail time.

A portrait of Dorothy Breininger.
Source: A&E

The producers reached out to Breininger and hired her to train them on the ins and out of hoarding. In an interview, she joked that fellow organizer Matt Paxton gets different types of hoarders than she works with because she focuses on children and older people.

It Was a Surprise Hit

A&E executives hoped Hoarders would be a hit, but they never expected the show to have so much success from the start. When it premiered in 2009, 2.5 million people tuned in, making it the network’s most-watched series premiere in their history.

A still from the show.
Source: A&E

The show only got bigger when it returned for a second season with 3.2 million viewers watching. Although subsequent airings never reached those numbers again, the series still had respectable numbers. The network was shocked to see how much people loved it, but they weren’t complaining.

They Usually Follow Up

Usually, the episodes end on a positive note, but that doesn’t mean the person is OK. The weeks and months following the cleanup are challenging for everyone involved, and sometimes people relapse to their old ways. However, the network tries to follow up.

A still of a participant during an episode.
Source: A&E

A&E created a new series showing the participants a year after their initial episode. For some, there were success stories, but it was sad to see that many people hadn’t stuck with the changes. It is not clear whether they keep tabs on the hoarders besides that initial follow-up.

They Try to Help the Animals

As we previously mentioned, some people hoard animals. There have been cases when the animals are too sick to survive after being removed from the home. However, sometimes the animals are brought to shelters for adoption because the owners can’t take care of them.

Animals are rescued from a participant’s home.
Source: YouTube

While viewers can only hope that these animals find loving homes and get the care they need, the show doesn’t give much information. We are sure people would like to know what happens to these innocent creatures after leaving the chaos and clutter.

Most of the Stuff Is Thrown Away

When the cleaning crew comes to clear out someone’s home, most of the stuff ends up in the trash. Although some items are set aside for donation, it is rare because most of the things they find are too dirty and decrepit to give away.

A still of the cleaning crew.
Source: A&E

In many hoarding situations depicted on the series, the person has collected garbage, so it is not worth donating. While there are definitely situations where they could go through the homes more carefully, it’s quicker to put everything in the dumpster.

A Comforting Success Story

Although there are many people who revert to their hoarding tendencies, one young participant was a success story. A year after he filmed his episode, Jake showed camera crews that he continued to keep his home tidy and free of the mess that once took over his life.

A still of Jake and his dog.
Source: SBS

Jake had a problem with hanging things around his home, and his father exacerbated the situation with his drinking issues. When the camera crew returned the following year, Jake proudly shared that his father cut down his drinking to a beer a day.

She Had Multiple Hoarding Homes

We can only imagine that living with a hoarder is anything but pleasurable. Therefore, hoarders often struggle with the relationships in their lives. In Season 10, Patricia had three houses brimming with garbage.

A still from Patricia’s episode.
Source: YouTube

Her boyfriend, Bill, had enough of her habits, and their relationship became more strained throughout the episode. Unfortunately, she wasn’t able to abandon her old ways, causing them to break up. Patricia passed away in 2020, and her daughter sold many of her items.

The Episodes Take Longer Than You Think

While the episodes are only an hour, they take much longer to film. The people on the series have lived in squalor for years or decades, so there is a lot to clean up and pack away. The participants also get counseling.

A man lays on top of boxes, clothes, and plastic bags, in a still from an episode.
Source: A&E

It can take weeks or months to film each episode, between the organization, planning, and counseling involved. Each case comes with a new timetable depending on the severity of the person’s situation. Every episode is different, but they all require a lot of work.

Her Trailer Worried Fans

When Constance was featured on Hoarders, she confessed that she grew up in poverty. She had to learn to make food last as long as possible throughout her life, which caused her hoarding habits. This continued into Constance’s adulthood and created an unhealthy living environment.

An image of rotten eggs.
Photo by Sergio Amiti/Getty Images

She started collecting chickens and their eggs for food. Constance ended up surrounded by hundreds of rotting eggs that took up every inch of her home. The crew deemed her trailer unlivable, so a local company donated a new one, and she has kept it clean.

She Had $1 Million Worth of Teddy Bears

There have been many strange things on Hoarders, but we had never heard of someone who owned $1 million worth of teddy bears. Jackie filled her San Francisco home with the plush animals that she collected throughout the years, but it got out of control.

A still of Jackie during an episode.
Source: A&E

Jackie became paranoid that thieves were living in the piles of bears and stealing her most expensive ones. Hoarders helped Jackie auction off most of her collection to clear out the space in her home. She apparently asked for the bears back and didn’t want to give them away.

He Wanted to Rival Disney World

Although Disney World, Hershey Park, and Universal Studios have plenty of visitors, Randy thought his theme park would be bigger than all of them. The New Jersey native had been hoarding stuff for Randyland for most of his adult life, and it started to pile up.

A photo of objects found at Randyland’s home.
Source: YouTube

From mannequins that looked like him to tokens, vintage arcade games, and a pinball machine, he had everything a person could imagine for a fun park. However, it dominated every inch of his home, so the crew sent it to Wildwood’s Boardwalk Mall.

The Show Is Still Going

After being canceled and revived numerous times, Hoarders is still on the air. The “where are they now” episodes run between seasons to give fans updates on previous participants. While it isn’t as big of a hit as it was, people still tune in.

A promotional image for the show.
Source: YouTube

The TLC version of the show tried to rival A&E’s, but it only lasted for five seasons. Unfortunately, people struggle daily with the mental stress of hoarding, but the show hopes to help as many people as possible. Hopefully, more people will stick to the changes.