Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Bed Bug Outbreak

Bed bug outbreak at Mesa shelter fraying nerves.

Tiny blood-sucking bed bugs are causing big problems at Mesa's East Valley Men's Shelter, fraying nerves and increasing tensions as repeated extermination efforts have failed.

A New Leaf, the Mesa non-profit that operates the East Valley's only homeless shelter, finds itself on the defensive as some residents accuse the agency of mounting an inadequate response to a 6-month-old infestation problem.

"They're forgetting that we're human beings. You can't treat us like cattle," resident Kevin Braggs said. "They did nothing to control the problem until I started writing to the press."

But Mike Hughes, chief executive officer of A New Leaf, said the agency has hired two exterminators, spent thousands of dollars and ratcheted up efforts to kill the bugs without resorting to overkill.

"We are committed to the people here. Unfortunately, the things we'd done before were not working," Hughes said. "We're going to do whatever is necessary. We don't want this to be an ongoing problem. It's got to be fixed."

In a letter to Maricopa County Environmental Services, A New Leaf said its current extermination plan will cost $6,000 to $7,500 and a long-term solution, which would include stripping the building of wooden dividers between beds and wooden beds, would cost $75,000 to $90,000.

The bugs are suspected of hiding in wooden furnishings, which would be replaced by metal dividers and beds. Hughes is trying to avoid this step but will resort to it in three or four months if
nothing else works.

"We'd rather put that money to better use at the facility," Hughes said.

Shelter manager Connie Hallett said removing all the wood likely would displace the 84 men who live there.

But Braggs said a more extensive effort is required now.

"When you go to bed, you can't sleep at night because they are eating you up," said Braggs, an ex-Marine who has been bitten on his neck, arms and legs. "They're not there at 2 a.m. to hear people smacking themselves in their sleep."

Some residents are so desperate that they are smuggling cans of pesticide into the shelter. Hallett said that practice is unnecessary because the shelter sprays for bugs and washes all bedding whenever a resident reports an outbreak.

Craig Levy, an epidemiologist with the Arizona Health Department, said there's no evidence that bed bugs spread disease, but he can understand why the homeless men are irritated.

Levy said the bugs feed on human blood and "it's not a pleasant thought."

Shelters are a perfect environment to attract bed bugs because they serve a transient population, he said.

But the bugs also have been reported in hotels and a private homes, an apparent consequence of bans worldwide on powerful pesticides that also were destructive to the environment.

The Mesa outbreak "does not surprise me because bed bugs are spreading all over the place," Levy said.

Maricopa County Environmental Services already has closed an investigation of an anonymous complaint filed by someone at the center. The case was closed after the shelter acknowledged the problem and committed to working to eliminate it, spokeswoman Jeanene Fowler said.

Eradication efforts have included replacing all mattresses. Belongings were been taken outside in hopes the heat would kill the bugs.

A second exterminator had the men leave their belongings inside and the entire building was fogged with pesticide. A follow-up fogging is planned soon.

A few policies also have been changed. All new residents must put their clothes in a dryer in hopes of killing more bugs.

Source: Jim Walsh / The Arizona Republic