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Company hires ex-cons to clean up people's lives

Sarah Lybrand
Company hires ex-cons to clean up people's lives

Clutter Cleaner cleans up the messiest homes in America. The kind seen on reality shows like A&E’s "Hoarders" (in which the company appeared in over 60 episodes).

“Something tragic has happened in these people’s lives,” says owner Matt Paxton. “So we go in very delicately and help them through the process of cleaning up.”

The company won't disclose specific revenue, but their extensive experience working on both small jobs, like cleaning out and organizing a garage, to larger-scale assignments, like those contracted by the county to completely gut and sanitize a home, can rake in $30,000 to $40,000 or more. Big projects like these typically involve someone who has a mental disorder that causes them to compulsively collect items -- particularly those that are worthless, hazardous or unsanitary. And after eight years of specializing in this type of work, Paxton wrote a bestselling book about his experiences.  

As awareness about hoarding has increased over the years, demand for Paxton's services has exploded. Since launching in 2006, the five-person Clutter Cleaner team in Richmond, Va., has now gone national via ServiceMaster Restore, a global network of franchises with which Paxton has partnered.

"I simply could not help enough people with my small team," he says.  Now he and his employees train those at a national level to both serve and be sensitive to the specific needs of hoarders, resulting in Clutter Cleaner's ability to help thousands of families get their lives back each year.  

And getting one's life back is something Paxton can personally relate to.

“I started cleaning hoarded homes because I couldn’t get any other job. I was at rock bottom… I’m a recovering gambler. And quite honestly at the time I was an alcoholic. I was a loser,” he says.

Despite his troubles, Paxton grew up in a family of entrepreneurs and watched both his father and his grandfather run multiple businesses when he was a child. “Financially, I wouldn’t say they were totally successful, but it’s all I’ve ever known: hustle, hustle, hustle.”

Paxton always had a strong work ethic and so like his father and grandfather before him, he attempted a series of failed companies in his 20s and 30s that only managed to put him in debt. And a remaining gambling habit from his college days only drove him further into financial decline. 

By 2006, Paxton had no job, owed $60,000, and had nowhere to live. Desperate, he paid a friend to let him sleep on his floor. “One day my friend finally asked me for the money I owed him, and I went to my grandmother and begged her to let me clean out her basement for $200, just to make rent,” Paxton says.

Cleaning out his grandmother’s basement proved no small task, however: Over 20 years of accumulation had caused his family to get on her case for years to get rid of stuff.

Recalling how cathartic cleaning out his father’s house had been after his death in 2001, Paxton began asking his grandmother questions, letting her share stories as he cleaned. An old set of golf clubs triggered a memory of his grandparents’ first date.

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“I saw my grandma explain how much she loved my grandfather – and not the bag – and that was it. [I realized] this has nothing to do with stuff," he says. "She missed my grandpa, just like I miss my dad. And I immediately knew this is what I wanted to do. This was a lot bigger than just throwing stuff away.”

Paxton launched his business with a handful of fliers, and calls started coming in. He realized he'd need some help, so he tried hiring college kids, but found their attitudes and work ethic lacking.  So he did something unexpected: he hired those down on their luck just as he had been.

“A guy coming out of prison has something to prove, and he has nowhere else to turn. I hired a guy named Ronnie and we gave him a week", Paxton recalls. "And by far he turned out to be our best employee.” Since then, Paxton has hired dozens of former felons who were just getting back on their feet.

“Our clients are down and out…and they’re really looked down on. My workers feel the same way," he says. "They feel like they’ve messed up in life and know the world is looking down on them. I didn’t know my clients and my employees would become such good friends.”

Paxton says second chances come natural to him now that he is living out his. “When you see it work out successfully, that becomes better than any money I can win at a craps table." He adds, "Real life is about failing. And I’m the best failure you’ve ever seen".

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Video produced by Sarah Lybrand & Emily Scharnhorst; co-produced by Jessica Ashford. Production by Michael Manas, Richard Rella, Josh Simmons, Maryann Vanderventor, and Maxwel Fisher. Edited by Sean Elms. Graphics by Todd Tanner and Adam Saul For Yahoo! Studios. Executive Producers: Russ Torres and Peter Gorenstein.