By Charley Sutton @CharlSutton
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Videographer / director: Marcus Hessenberg
Producer: Charley Sutton, Nick Johnson
Editor: Joshua Douglas
Sally-Ann Howell, 45, from Tivadale, West Midlands contacted cleaning specialists N Gervais in November 2016 after the council received complaints about a strong smell coming from her flat.
Her two-bedroom flat was bursting at the seams with four-foot-high piles of bin bags filled with rubbish, cat litter, bottles of urine and cat faeces that had accumulated over four years.
Thick cobwebs covered the ceiling and shelves were covered in bug-eaten books.
Cleaning company, N Gervais, are a domestic cleaning service with a specialist department that is dedicated to helping those whose hoarding disorder has got so out of control.
Hoarding specialists Tee and Caz, from Birmingham, head up the team and are generally called in when tenants have no choice but to clean up their act - or be homeless.
As well as working with individuals, N Gervais work with local councils who’ve served orders on people whose houses are causing neighbour complaints or health and safety risks.
But unlike many cleaning companies who - at times - ruthlessly declutter people’s homes without giving the condition of the tenant a second thought, Tee and Caz have a different approach.
Caz said: "We offer people like Sally like a great service. Plenty of aftercare, commitment, confidentiality, support TLC. I’d say we’re gentle in our approach.
“We respect their homes and their things. It shouldn’t be deemed as a ‘house clearance’ because it’s their possessions, their lives.
“The majority of us have some form of a care background, whether it be mental health, learning difficulties or working for the NHS.”
The team were perfectly qualified to help Sally-Ann, who is a self-confessed hoarder.
She said: “There are a lot of people who have such a terrible time getting rid of a piece of paper - I’m not that sort of hoarder.
"My hoarding is to do with me being stressed out with my anxiety and my depression, that when having a lot of stuff, I just think, well I need to get rid of it but I never do because my mentality cannot cope with it.
"But yes, I do class myself as one. A lot of people deny it, but I don’t.
"How does my home makes me feel? I would say it makes me feel disgusted with myself. And it got to a stage where I just wanted to end my life because of it. I couldn’t cope anymore.
“My hoarding actually started in the middle of 2010. My cat passed away, all of a sudden had a heart attack, and that’s when it started, leading from him and then depression and anxiety.
"I’ve been in the flat for 15 years and things would be untidy but I used to vacuum and clean and I looked after six cats at that time.
"Then I started going out with someone and started having problems with him and then another cat passed away. And it just snowballed from there. It would just build up and build up and then it gets to a stage where you can’t cope anymore."
Tee and Caz claim that Sally-Ann’s case of hoarding was one of the worst they’d seen.
Tee said: “It’s definitely a biohazard clean. When I come in, there is this smell. There are piles and piles of black bags, which I believe is rubbish. I’ve got concerns because I know that there is bottles of urine.
“This is extreme. This is very extreme.”
Sally-Ann said: “I suffer with bladder problems, the stress of incontinence and I couldn’t get to the toilet in time so I started having accidents and it got to the stage where I was using bottles and filling them up more than I was getting rid of them."
Sally-Ann’s hoarding had got so out of control, that she was unable to get into her kitchen.
She also couldn’t sleep in her bedroom, after her cat Mikey sadly passed away in her bed. For two months she had been sleeping in her narrow hallway.
She said: "I just couldn’t face going to bed anymore. So I basically got a round chair in the hall. I have a fire here to keep me warm. I have a footstool so I can put my feet up and I sleep in the chair with a blanket over me.
“The strange thing is, it is much comfier than my bed because obviously everything is cluttered on my bed. I used to have just about two foot, if that, of sleeping space. So it was very uncomfortable.
“I also suffer with carpet bugs, they’d actually be crawling over the bed. And kind of crawling over your legs so, it was not very nice.
“That’s what happens when you’re a hoarder - you have to find somewhere to sleep because there’s nowhere else to sleep."
Sally-Ann’s case may be extreme, but it’s not unusual.
A research study on hoarding carried out by Birmingham City Council in June 2016 states that it is estimated that between 2 percent and 5 percent of the population hoard - equating to 1.2 million households across the UK - 22,000 people in Birmingham.
Other figures suggest that there is actually up to 3 million hoarders in Britain.
Between April 2012 and February 2016, Birmingham City Council’s Environmental Health Department recorded a total of 153 hoarding cases.
And in the 2014/15 the West Midlands Fire Service recorded 120 cases of severe hoarding and 321 cases of dangerous storage suggesting that much of hoarding within the city remains ‘hidden.'
Tee and Caz recognise this and understand that people who hoard generally suffer with other mental health problems such as anxiety and depression.
Their aim isn’t to just clean homes, but to help people recover too. They offer an after-care package where they frequently visit clients after the clean is complete to ensure they are not hoarding again.
It took Tee and Caz’s team over a month to fully de-clutter and clean Sally-Ann’s flat.
And in April 2017, they checked in with Sally-Ann, concerned that the passing of her mum would have a knock-on effect to her hoarding.
However, Sally-Ann’s flat was spotless, without a cobweb, bin bag or pile of cat litter in sight.
Tee said: “Sally has ben amazing. She’s stayed positive throughout. She’s always happy, always smiling. Even when she was thinking, “Oh my god, we’re not going to get it finished' - we did.
“With her mum passing away, I don’t know how she’s done it. But she’s really pulled through."
Now, Sally is able to walk through her house without clambering over piles of rubbish and can sleep peacefully in her bed.
She said: “My life has improved dramatically. I feel a lot healthier, happier.
“The passing of my mum was only recently but because of the state of how I’m living now I can handle it more. It had got to a stage where if my mum had passed away and I was still living in the same situation, I don’t think I’d be here now.
“It feels strange because you do get used to it after four years, but now it’s all clear I still have a shock to be honest, thinking, ‘Wow it’s all gone.'
“There are millions of people out there living like I was and if they can see me and say, ‘She’s done it’ then maybe they can do it themselves. They have to have the right mindset at the end of the day.”