Some days Craig Strauss finds a bag filled with cash and on other days he is tossing out a hoarder's urine collection. But in the end, Strauss mainly deals with other people's junk – or their prized possessions, depending on how you look at it.
Though the public's fascination with hoarding has been fueled by cable television shows such as A&E's "Hoarders" or TLC's "Hoarding: Buried Alive," Strauss has been on the front line of clearing out such cluttered homes for much longer.
A Skokie native and owner of American Hoarders, Strauss was originally a mechanic at Oldsmobile. He said it wasn't the money that lead him to start his cleanup company but his father.
"My dad was divorced and when we left to college, he started collecting – empty nest syndrome– call it whatever you want," Strauss said. "As his sickness got worst, he started buying stuff from the Salvation Army that he didn't need. I mean, he had so much stuff, brand new, in the box, never opened."
In most cases, hoarding is a psychological disorder that's characterized as an inability to throw away items, experts said. The collection can include the person's urine, animals and even something as obscure as toasters.
The United States has more than 2 million people who are considered hoarders, according to the Anxiety Disorders Treatment Center in Durham, N.C.
"We've had hoarders that hoard animals like rabbits, horses or dogs," Strauss said. "Whenever we do work out-of-state, we require three-fourths of the money upfront. A lot of the times, we'll show up to a job site and [the hoarders] will back out of it because they're so attached to their stuff."
Strauss estimates that the average hoarder spends between $100,000 and $150,000 in their lifetime on needless products.
When it comes to his business, Strauss is a hands-on guy, who always carries a bottle of hand sanitizer in his car. He also takes pride in his work, making sure the job is done right every time. Most of his employees are paid from $10 to $35 an hour. As for his clients, a "regular" hoarding cleanup costs about $1,500 a day, while those who collect animals are charged about $1,900 a day.
Strauss also can empathize with family members and others who try to rescue hoarders from their plight. He said he tried to help his dad, now in his 80s, when he was younger, but his efforts were resisted.
"He wouldn't let me get rid of newspapers," Strauss said. "He would only let me clean the bathroom and kitchen."
As fate would have it, the first home Strauss' business cleared out was his father's. Now, the property serves as the American Hoarders office.
Click on Part Two to see a hoarding cleanup and Part Three to see the how American Hoarders help their clients.
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