Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Tenants fight bed bugs

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. -- For almost a year, tenants in a public housing facility have been fighting a bed bug problem. Operators of Green Gardens said they have tried to get rid of the pests, but many residents want tougher action.

"I have one that I just caught," tenant Patricia Flores said Wednesday morning. She had the small bug in a paper coffee cup.

Flores has lived in the facility since January, and she's battled the bugs the whole time.

Green Gardens is a 114-room facility on South Union Avenue that houses Kern County Mental Health clients. The small units are what director Randy Coats calls "single room occupancy."

"This has become a real issue," he said, referring to the on-going bed bug problem. Coats is executive director of Golden Empire Affordable Housing, the nonprofit agency that runs Green Gardens.

He said the bed bugs have been extremely tough to get rid of. "Out of the 15 or 20 residences that ended up with the problem, we still have four or five that are in their fourth of fifth spraying."

Flores lives in one of the units where there's been repeated spraying, but the bugs still come back. The last pesticide treatment was about ten days ago, and she says the insects were back in a couple days. She's convinced the treatments so far aren't good enough.

But Coats said their efforts to get rid of the bugs have been complicated by some residents not exactly following the instructions for handling their belongings that may have become infested with the bugs.

"They have issues," Coats said of some of the tenants. "Sometimes it's hard for them to understand the instructions and to follow the instructions to the letter."

Residents have to bag up things like clothes, and then wash them to remove any bugs. Coats said some tenants put the clean clothes back in the same plastic bags -- and those bags could still have had bugs hiding inside. But, they're trying to deal with that problem.

"We have in the last two weeks taken a more aggressive position with the residents and asking for the old bags, so we can throw them away," he said.

Coats said some tenants also removed furniture when the rooms were going to be sprayed, but then took that furniture back inside later. Again, bed bugs could have been hiding in the furniture -- and got back into the rooms that way.

Coats said the staff is personally helping some residents prepare their belongings before spray treatment is done of their rooms. He said maintenance staff is also caulking around areas like baseboards to keep the bugs from moving between rooms.

The staff will also wash down bed frames outside the rooms, to make sure bed bugs don't somehow hide in those areas.

Joy Webb is on the tenant council, she thinks the facility operators didn't take the problem seriously enough at the beginning. "I think at first, yes," she said -- asked if the situation had been neglected. "I don't think that now, the staff is really trying to do what they can do."

Bed bugs are making a come-back across the U.S. Experts say the insects feed on the blood of warm-blooded animals, that's why they will often come out at night, bite a victim, and then hide again during the day.

It's thought bed bugs spread by hitch-hiking to different places on things like suitcases, coats, purses and furniture. It may be we're seeing more bed bugs now because people are traveling more, and experts think some products that were used to treat them are not available now.

Kern County director of public health nursing Cindy Wasson said bed bugs can leave a rash, especially if someone is sensitive, but they do not spread disease.

Patricia Flores has been bitten repeatedly over the past months. On Wednesday, she pointed to red marks on one knee -- bites from the pests. And she had photos of other bites in the past on her arms and feet. Some of those were red and swollen.

Randy Coats said his agency has already switched to a different pesticide company, hoping to get rid of the bed bugs. And he's heard the pests are very difficult to kill off with each repeated pesticide treatment.

"Every time you try, it's harder to eradicate them the second time," he said. "They build up a resistance to the chemicals."

A batch of rooms will be sprayed again next Monday. Coats said if that doesn't do the job, they'll meet with the exterminators to see if something stronger could be used. Some experts now recommend very high heat or strong vacuums to kill the bugs.

Flores is convinced more than just a few rooms need to be treated. Tenant council member Donna Van Harreveld agrees with that. "When you spray one room, then they travel on to the next room," she said.

As for treating the entire facility, Coats said that could be considered, too. "If this doesn't work, maybe it's time to just treat the unit completely. Even if it has to be painted, and whatever else it takes, to put everything up, and then bring items back into the unit on a single item basis."

Patricia Flores says something more -- and stronger -- has to be done. "I'm asking them to literally take this thing and do it the right way," she said. "You can't live like this."

Source: By Carol Ferguson, Eyewitness News