JIM LEHRER: Now, the impact of home foreclosures in the Southern California county of Riverside. We have a story originally produced by KCET Los Angeles for its program, SoCal Connected. The correspondent is Lisa Ling.
LISA LING: You could say that these guys are a home’s most unwelcome group of guests because they’re here to grab, throw, bag, haul, and generally destroy everything left behind by the owner of this foreclosed home.
The mission is to fill this dumpster as quickly as possible so it can be taken to the landfill. That’s right: the landfill. Nearly everything left in this house is going to the dump.
Why would people leave a big TV like that?
JOHN PLOCHER, Western Security Realty Preservation: Well, I think that they didn’t have the money to get a moving van and so they took what they could, threw it in their car, and they’re off. We don’t even know where they would go, but maybe to relatives, to a hotel.
LISA LING: John Plocher owns a business that contracts with banks and mortgage companies to do this dismantling, which he calls a trash-out. The word he says he came up with because it so perfectly describes how homes are emptied.
Is this house typical of a lot of the ones that you trash-out?
JOHN PLOCHER: Yes, newer home, newer neighborhoods, over the last five or six years, those are the people that participated in these subprime loans. And they’re the ones that are really taking the beating.
Leaving everything behind
LISA LING: Even though he's done this now for several years, Plocher says he's still surprised by the personal things people leave behind.
People always say that the first thing they take if there was some kind of a disaster is photographs, but...
JOHN PLOCHER: No, we find pink slips to automobiles. We find birth certificates. Now, those types of things we keep and we attempt to mail those...
LISA LING: Computers, computer printers.
JOHN PLOCHER: Yes, there's a computer. It's all intact.
LISA LING: Two computers in here.
JOHN PLOCHER: Yes, two computers in there, a table.
LISA LING: Incredible. Incredible.
JOHN PLOCHER: We've found dozens of things, but one of the things we found just recently was an urn that somebody's remains they had been cremated in, and they left their urn at the house. And we called the bank and said, "What do we do with that?" And they said, "Do not trash that."
LISA LING: And although people know for months in advance that they're headed for foreclosure, they often leave in a hurry.
JOHN PLOCHER: You've got rotting food here. These people didn't take much. They took what they needed, perhaps their wallets and their purses, and the shirts on their back, literally, and they're gone.
LISA LING: I guess, if you're going to lose everything, what's the point of cleaning up, right?
JOHN PLOCHER: I think that people finally get to this point are depressed. They've lost their home, and they're probably not thinking straight. They've lost everything. And as you can see, a lot of good stuff is still here, and so they must be in great despair.
A 'grand scale' disaster
LISA LING: A few years ago, Plocher had three employees. Today, he has 73, trashing an average of 15 foreclosed homes a day.
So it must be a little bit of a bittersweet kind of experience, because on the one hand, your business booming, but you're from here, and you're seeing all these people's lives destroyed, essentially.
JOHN PLOCHER: And friends, too. We've got people actually in our company that are losing their homes. I've got many, many friends that have lost their homes. This is a disaster on a grand scale. This is not something that we're excited about doing.
LISA LING: That sense of sadness isn't lost on the trash-out crew.
EMPLOYEE: I wonder what I would do in their situation. I wonder how I would feel, what I would leave behind, what I would tell my kids before I leave.
I mean, I have pick up their children's toys. I mean, I pick up dolls and I wonder, I wonder if this was a little girl's best friend. I wonder what this was to somebody else. And now it's going in the dumpster.
JOHN PLOCHER: Everything that's left behind is left behind because they want to leave it here. There's no coercion. They're not being forced out of the house immediately. They have plenty of time to take it out. So it's their decision, not the banks, not ours.
Getting rid of belongings
LISA LING: Plocher says he's tried and tried to donate everything to charity, because it makes ecological sense and would cut what he pays in landfill fees.
EMPLOYEE: ... $16.99, now it's worthless.
LISA LING: But his crews move at a blistering pace and the logistics of hooking up with a charity truck has never worked out.
JOHN PLOCHER: What happens is they don't show up when they say they're going to show up. They leave things because they don't think it's valuable. And then we have to come back and pick it up or we get in trouble because we did not finish the job.
LISA LING: Plocher says he's contractually prohibited from leaving anything on the curb. Every house has to be left ready to sell. So crew members are encouraged to keep anything they like, so long as they can carry it off the job that day.
EMPLOYEE: Very nice lamp.
EMPLOYEE: Want to take that?
EMPLOYEE: I don't know where I'd put it.
EMPLOYEE: Let me take that.
EMPLOYEE: Anybody want the end table? Nobody wants to take it home?
EMPLOYEE: I don't think so. It's already been claimed.
JOHN PLOCHER: Even the guys that are seasoned in this business I think it's caused them to think, how could this happen? And we're just seeing all kinds of things happen that I don't think we would have thought were possible.
California's foreclosure crisis
LISA LING: No matter which neighborhood you go to, the story is the same: auctions, bank-owned properties, short sales, which is when an owner owes more than the house is worth.
GENE MATERA: About every third house is foreclosed right past the golf course, right down in the golf course area down there.
JIM PERRY: There are two or three this way. There's three this way. And there are like five across the street that are foreclosures.
DAVE AMAGRANDE: So we have an auction, a short sale, a short sale, bank-owned, two more foreclosures, another foreclosure down here and another, I believe, short sale.
EMPLOYEE: We need to go to the dump like now.
JOHN PLOCHER: I don't think the United States or at least California could handle another one of these foreclosure crises, but we'll go through this process again. In the short term, yes, everybody has burned their hand and they remember that burn. But over the long term, 10 years from now, we might be back here.
JIM LEHRER: That was an excerpt from a longer program. To see the piece in its entirety, just go to PBS.org, scroll down to NewsHour Reports, and then look for a link to the KCET Web site.