Hoarder has lunch with workers cleaning out cluttered house

Kenneth Epstein, a hoarder living in a Sun City Summerlin duplex, for the first time Sunday joined the workers cleaning out his house for lunch and had such a civil conversation that without looking at him, it would seem like talking to anyone.

City of Las Vegas spokesman David Riggleman said food has been brought in daily and shared with Epstein, 55, but for the first time he joined the workers when invited.

"He sat and carried on a lucid conversation," Riggleman said. "If you look past his physical appearance, you would have thought you were having a conversation with anyone."

Epstein is both raggedy and fragrant. One neighbor said she once saw him washing his clothes in the gutter after a rainfall.

At one lunch, he brought out a guitar, tuned it and played it. When asked what he did for a living, Epstein said he did a little of everything, and had been a musician.

He seems to have developed a good rapport with one social worker and one code enforcement official and has been calm, except for the first cleanup on Friday, when he locked himself inside the house when people tried to enter it.

The dead cat tally is now up to six and Animal Control has trapped a total of 30 live cats, 21 on Sunday alone.

A total of 18 truckloads of items to be disposed of by 1-800-GOT-JUNK has been removed from the home, exceeding the original estimate of 15. Each truck holds one ton. "We estimated 15 truckloads, we’ve taken out 18 and we are about one-third through the house," Riggleman said.

The process is slow. A health official decides if the item is contaminated and falls under the legal description outlined in the administrative warrant. If it’s not contaminated, Epstein has the option of keeping it.

The materials he wants to keep are being locked and stored in a storage unit for future decontamination, and to prevent him from immediately putting it back in his house as he has done in prior cleanups after citations by the city’s code enforcement.

Chris Knight, who oversees code enforcement as director of Building & Safety, celebrated his birthday by suiting up in protective gear Sunday and examining the site.

Knight has decided that in future cases like this, instead of repetitive code citations, the city will adopt a multijurisdictional approach and send in code enforcement, animal control, social workers, mental health officials, other health officials, fire officials and police.

Since 2007, Epstein has been cited by code enforcement eight times.

He is not believed to be indigent because when he’s been fined by his homeowners association, he has paid the fines and continued hoarding.

Riggleman believes the fact that Epstein is allowed to decide which items to keep is keeping him calm, since hoarders often are traumatized when their stuff is removed. The vacuum cleaner I saw tossed on Saturday was covered with cat feces.

The refrigerator count housing liquified food is now up to six. One woman drove by and asked the workers curtly "Are you making sure he’s being fed?"

Several neighbors have said one neighbor on Gold Bank Drive has provided food regularly to Epstein.

Riggleman explained some of the reasons city officials are calling Epstein’s home the worst case of hoarding they’ve ever seen.

One is the quantity. The second is that there’s no pathway for him to walk through the house.

That’s the first time the team of professionals, private and public, has seen that. Usually hoarders create what researchers call "goat paths" about a foot wide so they can navigate through their stuff.

To get around his home, Epstein had a crawl space of 12 to 15 inches below the ceiling and crawled on top of his hoard.

Jane Ann Morrison’s column appears Monday, Thursday and Saturday. Email her at Jane@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0275. She also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/morrison.

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