Edmonds woman tackles dirty work of helping hoarders

From professional organizing to A&E’s ‘Hoarders,’ Erica DeMiele makes extreme cleaning her business
By Nicholas Johnson | Dec 21, 2017
Courtesy of: Erica DeMiele

Edmonds resident Erica DiMiele’s organizing skills have come a long way.

“When I started out, I was giving people organizational bins to put their shoes in,” said the 27-year-old, who is one of the stars of the popular television show “Hoarders.” “I became so bored with helping the rich Woodway housewives.”

Her work now encompasses much more now than a tiny slice of southwest Snohomish County.

Still, when DiMiele now says she’s living her dream, many might consider her profession a nightmare.

“Whenever I tell people what I do, they’re like ‘What?’” she said. “They don’t understand, so sometimes I just tell people I work for a cleaning company.”

But the 27-year-old doesn’t work for a typical cleaning company; she works for Steri-Clean, a nationwide company that handles extreme cases of hoarding, as well as other biohazard cleaning services such as crime scene cleanup, suicide cleanup, pet cleanup and traffic accident cleanup.

DiMiele is the owner of Steri-Clean’s first franchise in the Pacific Northwest, in Mukilteo’s Sterling Business Park.

“There’s a huge need in Washington,” company founder and CEO Cory Chalmers said, noting that Washington is home to an estimated 355,000 hoarders. Chalmers is a leading expert on the A&E’s “Hoarders,” which first aired in 2009 after a production company filmed him and his team cleaning up several hoarded homes.

DiMiele has been a fan of the show since the first time she saw it as a student at Edmonds Community College.

“I saw the show and was like ‘I’m going to be on that one day,’” she said.

Soon, she began looking into starting her own professional organizing business.

“I didn’t know how to spell the word ‘entrepreneur,’ much less how to open a business.”

But eventually she founded Katharizo Organizing and started taking on clients, most who simply wanted help de-cluttering their closet.

Every once in a while, when not helping rich Woodway clients, she would come across a more extreme case of hoarding. One time, she took on a client whose house in Marysville was covered in cat poop. Soon she realized that in order to tackle the more extreme cases, she would need more and better equipment.

Then a producer for the show “Hoarders,” who also lives in Edmonds, saw DiMiele featured in an article in the Edmonds Beacon. The producer got in touch with DiMiele and invited her to be one of several support organizers on an episode in Port Angeles.

“We were really excited to meet Erica,” Chalmers said.

DiMiele then appeared on a season 9 episode in Franklin, Indiana. Now, she’s set to return as a hoarding expert in the show’s upcoming season.

“We will be starting to film our 10th season starting in January, and we are casting for episode cases now,” she said.

For now, though, DiMiele is focused on running her new franchise. As a result, she said she doesn’t have much of social life, but she’s committed to taking on even the most repulsive situations because she knows she’s helping people in a meaningful way.

“I often wonder how I got into this gnarly line of work, but it’s so fulfilling,” she said. “I mean, I don’t enjoy cleaning up dead bodies on a Tuesday, but I’ll do it because I know we’re really helping people in their most imminent time of need.”

Steri-Clean doesn’t just clean out hoarded homes and expect clients to change their behavior as a result. The company connects them with therapists for mental health services.

“You wouldn’t go into a bar and find an alcoholic and take the bottle from their hand and say you cured them,” Chalmers said. “We can’t just take the clutter away and think we’re curing them. It’s filling an emotional void. In order to really address these problems, we get them into therapy so they can confront those traumas in their lives that caused them to begin hoarding in the first place.”

The company also works collaboratively with clients to process the clutter.

“We get a lot of calls from family members who say ‘Come clean my mom’s house and I’ll take her away for the weekend,’” he said. “That doesn’t really work. We can’t do our work unless they are present and working with us in this process because it is so emotional.”

Two to 5 percent of population hoards, DiMiele said. She said the chances of clients continuing to hoard after their homes are cleaned out is more than 75 percent if they don’t get therapeutic intervention.

“We know we’re guests in people’s homes,” she said. “We develop a rapport like a hospice nurse would. We bond with the clients, and it’s important to us to stay in touch with them. I think the human connection and one-on-one work we do helps to prevent these people from falling back into hoarding.”

The company also takes on crime scenes and traffic accident scenes, among other things. Over the past few months, DiMiele said she and her team have been developing client leads and collaborating with housing authorities in Seattle and Everett, as well as the National Association of Professional Organizers. Now, she hopes to develop relationships with local businesses, law enforcement and fire departments in order to assist with their clean-up needs.

“We hope people come out, especially if they have this problem, so we can answer their questions,” Chalmers said.

“A lot of people see us on TV and they’re scared because they think we come in with dump trucks and just empty the house. But we don’t have nearly as many people going in as it might seem. In reality we send 2-5 people and sort through everything in the house – every envelope, every piece of newspaper. This is all about educating people about the truth of hoarding and finding people help.”

For her part, DiMiele said she feels more fulfilled than ever.

“I feel like I’m making a difference in people’s lives,” she said. “I feel like I’m part of something much bigger than myself.”

#– Nicholas Johnson is a former editor of the Mukilteo Beacon.#

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