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Clutter Stands in the Way of Saving Her Home

Times Staff Writer

The sign over the back door, “Bless this mess,” doesn’t adequately convey what waits inside: floors caked with animal excrement, waist-high piles of junk, the stiffened corpse of a cat -- and a teary-eyed woman whose life has spun out of control.

On Thursday, volunteers wearing breathing masks began cleaning out the single-story Garden Grove home to help owner Anne Francis avoid foreclosure and eviction.

Francis, 70, a former interior decorator, said she was embarrassed by the massive amount of clutter she has accumulated over the years. “I know it’s like a sickness,” she said. “I guess when your life is empty with one thing, you fill it with something else.”

Francis’ situation has tugged the heartstrings of a Bakersfield reverse-mortgage processor and a publicist from a Vancouver, Canada-based, junk-removal company.

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“She needs help,” said Tina Wilson, the Network Source Funding mortgage agent whose usual professional detachment crumbled when she worked on Francis’ case. “This is something I can’t walk away from.”

Wilson teamed up with Katie Dunsworth of 1-800-Got-Junk, which donated junk-removal services for Francis and tried to drum up media interest in the story.

But their efforts might not save the day.

The home recently went into foreclosure after Francis failed to keep up with the mortgage payments. She applied for a reverse mortgage, hoping it would enable her to pay off the house and leave enough for her living expenses.

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But when reverse-mortgage company officials visited the site, they discovered a leaky roof, water damage and wall-to-wall clutter. They ordered Francis to have the junk removed so inspectors could check for termites and other potential problems.

Wilson frets that the cost of repairs might leave Francis without a surplus to live on. Wilson hopes businesses and others will pitch in.

For starters, Francis needs a water heater, Wilson said. After hers broke several years ago, Francis resorted to sanitary wipes for bathing and a microwave to heat water.

But a larger problem is Francis’ chronic hoarding. As the junk-removal squad began hauling out truckloads of furniture, knickknacks and other items, Francis began demanding some objects be returned.

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“What they think is junk isn’t,” she said. “They’re throwing out my snow globes. Those cost $25 each.

“I’ve got paintings and embroideries,” she said, pointing to a Leaning Tower of Pisa-esque pile of artwork against one wall.

Cases of compulsive hoarding are “more common than people realize,” said Michael Tompkins, a clinical psychologist in Oakland who specializes in obsessive-compulsive disorders. The cause is unknown, he said, and treatment success rates are low.

Among the more extreme examples is a San Diego woman who parked a fleet of hearses on her lawn for decades to hold the overflow from her house.

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Another memorable case involved two brothers found buried under 136 tons of junk in a Manhattan brownstone in 1947. Their stash included 14 grand pianos and a Model T chassis, according to news reports.

Cleanup crews from 1-800-Got-Junk’s 260 North American offices encounter hoarders “on a weekly basis,” Dunsworth said.

The Garden Grove squad labeled Francis’ home the worst they had handled, partly because of the stench from dog and cat excrement covering the floors. Additional animals -- cages of doves, rabbits and chickens -- that live on her back porch appeared healthy.

“They eat better than I do,” Francis said, explaining that her three dogs dine on sirloin burgers and chicken breasts from Costco.

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What about the cat corpse that was discovered amid the debris?

Not unusual, Tompkins said: “I’ve talked to people who sleep in the same bed as an animal carcass.” Compulsive hoarders develop “a blind spot” to their surroundings, he said, and have as much trouble disposing of a dead animal as any other clutter.

Outside the home, however, hoarders often lead normal lives.

Elena Zagustin was a professor of civil engineering at Cal State Long Beach when she was cited for 69 health and safety violations at her garbage-filled Huntington Harbour home in 1998.

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Francis has mostly flown under the radar during her three decades in Garden Grove. In July 2004, the city cited her for debris and for keeping too many cats and dogs, but the case was cleared two months later. She got in trouble this year for an overgrown lawn, but that matter was fixed in June.

Francis has mixed feelings about the publicity sought by Wilson and others trying to help her. She needs assistance to keep her house, she said, but she fears her pets will be taken away.

With no family or friends -- her closest acquaintance died last year -- the animals are all she has, Francis said, eyes welling. “I don’t bother people. I just want people to leave me alone.”


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