Posted September 7, 2020
Eloise Keene, a senior who lives alone, has been sleeping in a chair in her apartment in Hamilton’s east end for two weeks.
The 75-year-old woman, who resides in a social housing building at 555 Queenston Rd., which is dedicated to seniors, said she threw out her furniture for the fifth time after a resurgence of bedbugs.
She said pest control has been treating her apartment every month since spring, and the bedbugs still weren’t going away.
“One guy came in ... walked in right to my chair, (and) said ‘Wonder if you still have bedbugs — oh yeah, there’s one’ ... on my chair,” she said. “I said to myself, I want to get rid of them and I knew the only way to get rid of them was to throw the furniture out; they taught me that.”
She said she previously bought a leather couch and chair because she was told bedbugs don’t like the material. Before she had her most recent inspection at the end of August, she threw those out, too.
“Every time CityHousing Hamilton told me the bugs were gone, I’d buy new furniture,” said Keene, who is on a fixed income.
The city says they’ve been doing better with bedbugs this year.
“This year’s been relatively good in terms of complaints coming through,” for both public and private buildings, said Coun. Chad Collins, who is also president of the CityHousing board of directors.
Bedbugs have plagued the city for years at a cost in the millions.
In 2009, the CityHousing Hamilton budget for pest control was $300,000. In 2017, that number was $1.3 million.
So far this year, CityHousing has spent more than $655,000 on pest control, according to numbers provided by city spokesperson Antonella Giancarlo on behalf of CityHousing Hamilton CEO Tom Hunter.
Giancarlo said in an email that 555 Queenston Rd. has had eight bedbug treatments so far this year, plus 46 cockroach treatments. In all the CityHousing buildings, there have been 664 bedbug treatments and 851 cockroach treatments this year.
Laverne Dow, another tenant in the building, said she believes there are more than three units at 555 Queenston Rd. with bedbugs, but acknowledged there’s a stigma that prevents some tenants from calling for help.
In 2016, the city implemented a three-year “bedbug strategy” to help reduce the prevalence of the pests.
A summary of the community engagement report mentions some of the barriers to addressing the problem. Among them are a fear that reporting bedbugs might lead to blame on the tenant or possible eviction. Another is stigma that bedbugs are connected to poverty or unclean conditions.
Bedbugs “can happen to anyone, anywhere, at any time,” the report notes.
“When you don’t call because you might be embarrassed, there’s the opportunity then for the bugs to spread to other areas,” said Collins. “The longer something goes unchecked, the more that they have the opportunity to get into other places and impact other people.”
Dow said she’s concerned pest control is only treating the affected units and not the ones surrounding them, as she believes this allows the problem to persist.
“We’re not randomly going through to other units and just treating them without knowing whether pests are prevalent in the unit,” said Collins, noting that staff tries to be “proactive.” He said one of the units at 555 Queenston had its pests discovered when a resident came into the building office and staff noticed a bedbug on her.
Dow and Keene both said they’ve sought assistance from CityHousing to replace their baseboards and caulking to help seal their apartments to prevent the bugs from coming in, but they’ve had no luck.
In an email, Giancarlo said CityHousing may provide help with baseboards and caulking depending on how much work is involved, noting that residents can request “basic caulking work.” But a property manager’s approval is needed for bigger projects such as replacing baseboards.
“In the majority of cases, baseboard replacements and caulking are not necessary for the control of pests,” she wrote.
“It’s actually disappointing that someone who’s not just a senior but who lives in CityHousing is being forced to live with no furniture,” said Dayna Sparkes, a member of ACORN Canada’s Hamilton East chapter.
ACORN has been organizing for better protections for renters in Hamilton, including a licensing process for landlords and “proactive enforcement” of municipal property standards, including proper pest management, Sparkes noted.
“I don’t think people realize how extensive and thorough you have to be when you’re getting treatment,” she said. “It’s not an easy process.”
Sparkes added that it’s challenging for seniors to remove furniture from their apartments and costly to laundry everything.
She believes CityHousing and other landlords have the responsibility to help their tenants get their furniture replaced.
“It’s the same thing as with having the pests themselves — it’s not (the tenant’s) fault,” she said.
Giancarlo said money is available to ODSP and Ontario Works recipients to offset the costs of mattresses, as well as preparation and prevention for bedbugs.
Keen said she hasn’t yet received the results from the inspection, but after she threw out her furniture, she hasn’t been bitten once.
Even if she could afford new furniture again, Keene said she doesn’t see the point in replacing it.
“Why buy it again if (the bugs are) going to come back?” she said.
Article by Maria Iqbal for the Hamilton Spectator