Bedbug Manor

root - Posted on 25 February 2003

Low-income tenants of Mission District Single Room Occupancy Hotel continue to struggle with parasite infestation

by Valerie Schwartz/PNN Community Journalist and Poverty Scholar

"Some have named it Bedbug Manor and it don't feel good to live in a place named that", I was listening intently to a very uncomfortable Fernando Robinson, President of the Altamont Tenants Association, a SRO (single room occupancy) in the Mission district of San Francisco. Fernando was a pleasant man with a very earnest demeanor who contacted POOR Magazine seeking some help. He came to discuss an ongoing problem with bedbug infestation in the Altamont Hotel that for some reason has not been able to be eradicated for the last year. The tenants are miserable. They are tired of the parasites and the health hazards it has created.

He was addressing the POOR staff at Community Newsroom, "The bedbugs are the tenants and we are the visitors." I asked Fernando , "How long has this been a problem?" He then explained, "This has been documented since December 11, 2001 and some of the tenants say it has been longer than that."

I researched the little "critters" that are wreaking havoc upon the tenants of the Altamont Hotel/SRO. This is what I have found: 1. Bedbugs need to feed on blood for their nutrition. 2. They primarily feed on humans but will also feed on rodents, rabbits, bats, and other warm-blooded animals. 3. Adult bedbugs can live for periods of 6-12 months and can survive starvation in proper conditions for a year. 4. They usually only feed at night in the dark, unless starving then they will come out to feed in a darkened room in daylight hours. 5. Each female will lay 2-3 eggs a day, during the course of its life, and these eggs hatch within 10-days. 6. Bedbugs may be a vector for Hepatitis B. 7. Bedbugs conceal themselves under the seams of mattresses, floorboards, and in the cracks and crevices of walls, paintings, furniture, and behind loose wallpaper. 8. Their movement is determined by the relocation of infected furniture and possessions and that initially small infestations will happen as a result of the transfer, but if left untreated or treated improperly, the population of bedbugs will increase dramatically. 9. The bite of a bedbug can facilitate a secondary infection such as cellulitis and impetigo. Bedbug bites can also produce considerable anxiety. 10. Bedbugs are 5-7mm, about the size of a lentil or small ladybug.

"I awoke at 3:15 this morning as I felt bedbugs biting my lower back and feet. Pesticide exterminators last treated my room on September 5, 2002. The bedbugs resumed biting me on the 15th of September. I have been bitten for the last year countless times and have accumulated a sampling of the bedbugs in a vial of alcohol. I have undertaken to buy at my own expense, pesticide fogging bombs for the last three-months. This, despite the fact that I'm on General Assistance and cannot afford to buy them every ten-days. I am also concerned about what all the insecticide poison in my room is doing to my body and health. Lastly, the friendships among the tenants has suffered badly during this bedbug plague, as people are afraid to visit with other tenants or receive guests: afraid of picking up bedbugs. This has severely affected morale among tenants." Letter from Bernard Schatzer, tenant of the Altamont Hotel.

This was one of many letters sent to the management of the Altamont Hotel, which is run by Caritas Management and Mission Housing Development Corporation. Many of the tenants have a wide range of medical and mental health issues that are aggravated not only by the parasites but also by the chemicals used by the exterminators to eradicate the bugs.

I then asked Fernando, "What has the management done to resolve this infestation at the Altamont?" Fernando said as he shook his head with a slight bit of resign, "They come to our meetings and we ask to close the building to properly handle the problem, but they won't. They just want to keep spraying chemicals from the same pesticide company and it doesn't doesn't kill them. They use the cheapest spray, some of the tenants think its water. The Pest-Control man is a damn liar! He's milking the management, he's in it for the money."

I called the Building Inspection Department/Code Enforcement of the City and County of San Francisco. I asked them if I could speak to someone about a bedbug infestation in an SRO. I was told, "That is not our department, you will have to call the Department of Health."

I called the Department of Health, the number for Pest-Control/General Complaints and I received a message for a voice box that was full. I then called Epidemiology and was referred to another department, to Mr. Mel Ripman. I asked Mr. Ripman, "Could you please define to me exactly what kind of parasite/pest a bedbug is?" Mr. Ripman responded, "It is a an insect that lives in the mattress." I asked, "Does it refer to scabies, lice, mites, or fleas?" Mr. Ripman gave me a very short and serious answer, "No, they are a separate entity."

I am intrigued with the subject of bedbugs in SRO hotels because I, as a low income tenant have been bitten by insects/parasites in many of the hotels in the Tenderloin and in the Mission. I wondered... Why is there such a problem and how do the tenants of these buildings get the help they need? I think that somehow the health department and the property-owners should perhaps circulate pertinent an useful information to the tenants about bedbugs, parasites, and health hazards that apply to living in SRO's, hotels, shelters, and public housing. Also a way should be facilitated to have some kind of seminars, on site, with BI-lingual outreach workers, to educate the tenants of these buildings and facilities about what they need to know and what they can do about pestilence, general cleaning of their rooms and personal possessions, the use of pesticides and hazards of pesticides. I know this is not a solution but hopefully an incremental step in the right direction. People who live on a fixed income, marginal at best, should not have to fall victim to negligence that results in hazardous living conditions.

Another letter from a tenant:

"I have lived here in this building for at least four and a half years. There has existed a severe building wide infestation for the past one and a half years. I suffer from severe insomnia and chronic depression, fatigue and anxiety. My medical condition has worsened progressively with the extreme infestation. Building management has consistently lied and denied in regards to this problem since day one. I have actually been threatened with eviction by building management in regards to this matter! I strongly feel that this is a retaliatory action for constantly complaining about this problem. I can no longer have overnight guests because of the bedbugs. I feel that if I could afford to do so financially, I would have moved out of this place a long time ago. Unfortunately, I now realize that legal action in civil-court against Caritas Management Co. and their parent company Mission Housing Development Co. seems to be the only solution left for me and my fellow tenants to get this depressing and disgusting situation fixed." Frank Munoz tenant Altamont Hotel.

I called Mission Housing Development Corporation and spoke with Amy Fishman. I asked her what they were doing about the infestation and how they were dealing with the tenants in regard to the bedbugs at the Altamont Hotel/SRO. Ms. Fishman explained to me, "We have replaced all of the mattresses and box-springs, and also the wooden bed frames in the rooms that had the wooden frames. We have given the tenants new pillows and provided all the tenants with laundry and dry cleaning services, everything has been treated". Ms. Fishman told me that the problem "has been a challenge" and that they have instituted a "new aggressive strategy that is an intensive, building wide, unit to unit 100% treatment." The building was treated two-weeks ago.

"Does the Health Department have out-reach workers for the tenants of SRO's?" I inquired. Amy then relayed to me, "Jackie Greenwood of the Health Dept. has been very helpful with helping us to teach the tenants about the bugs. Says Amy, "She's the bedbug expert in the city." She then said that it was a "very challenging problem" and that it was hard to get some of the tenants to understand that they need to bathe regularly and to keep their rooms clean, but tried to assure me that they are trying very hard to accommodate the tenants so they won't be miserable and will have a safe place to live. Ms. Fishman told me that as we spoke the Health Department was doing a follow-up inspection at the Altamont from the treatment of the building on 10-07-02 and expressed her gratitude for the Health Department stepping in and helping them work with the tenants as a third-party.

After speaking with Ms. Fishman I talked with Fernando Robinson again. I asked him, "Do you feel that there is going to be a resolve with the infestation in the building?" Fernando sounding tired and worried said, "I really can't say. Some people now have larger bites than ever before and there are still big bedbugs. "Tenants have bruises from scratching and others have visible scars and scabs from the bites."

I asked Fernando if there was a great deal of concern among the tenants about being exposed to the pesticides, Mr. Robinson said, "Yes, its working on the tenants not the bugs." Fernando then expressed that he and many of the tenants do not believe that the chemicals they are spraying with are or will be effective, but in fact are very worried about exposure to the chemicals. Especially the elders and those tenants with Medical issues, Disabilities, Mental Health, and HIV issues.

Says Mr. Robinson, "We want it to be done with but I don't think it is going to work. The pesticide man still has to go down in the basement where the storage is and they said it is a tedious job. By the time they get done down there the bugs will just have moved back upstairs and it will start all over again. I still think that maybe the only way to get rid of the bugs is to close the entire building and move everyone out for the building to be thoroughly treated for however many days it would take."

The building is to be treated again in another two-weeks and Fernando and the tenants of the Altamont are waiting, trying to be patient, and praying for this misery to be over. I can tell you that parasite infestations are no laughing matter and as a person who personally lived through a few experiences such as the tenants of the Altamont that they can severely worsen morale, mental health and medical issues. It is no fun to have to hunker down and be vigilant all night every night while literally, trying to save your skin.


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