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Down and out and bitten

The city's main homeless shelter is battling a persistent pest



Jeffrey Lakey takes a long drag off a Marlboro Light before stubbing it out and lighting another.

Obviously upset, he speaks in curt, passionate phrases, like an attorney making a closing argument. Lakey, 27, also looks like an attorney: black pinstriped suit, shiny shoes, crisp white shirt, tie, short hair meticulously combed to the side. The look is marred only by the small, red scabs that polka-dot his hands and face. When he removes his shoes and pulls up his trouser legs, they also appear on his legs and feet.

"You wake up itching them," he says.

Bed bugs — small, wingless, bloodsucking insects that usually feed at night — are becoming more common in the U.S., spreading to hotels, motels, shelters and even public places like movie theaters. They're adept at hiding, crawling into the crevices of furniture, inside clothes, and behind picture frames and wallpaper. Only some people react to the bites, with symptoms that include itching and redness, but usually not pain.

Lakey says he began getting bites shortly after he came to the Salvation Army R.J. Montgomery Center, the city's main homeless shelter, around the beginning of October. He says he talked to every staff member he encountered about the problem, and was advised to use his own money to buy repellents like lavender oil. The shelter did spray his bed once, he says.

"The night that they sprayed my bunk area," he remembers, "I got bit up the worst."

Lakey, an Army veteran who explains he's struggling to get back on his feet after a family illness, says his bites were extremely painful. He had several on the bottoms of his feet, which bled into his socks as he walked the city applying for jobs.

A U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs doctor eventually put him on an antibiotic after some of the bites became infected — but not before the bites cost him an opportunity at a men's clothing store, he says. On his second interview, he showed up covered in bleeding sores. "They treated me like a meth addict," he says.

Major Richard Larson, El Paso County coordinator for the Salvation Army, says he's not aware of a recent outbreak at the shelter, but bed bugs are an ongoing problem at the 200-bed facility, where four to 10 new people are admitted every night.

"People bring them into the shelter," he says. "We have a pest-control partner that works with us, and they come in and spray quarterly, and if we have an outbreak they come in and spray again, and we also have our own stuff that we spray."

Residents are required to store their belongings in plastic bags, and the mattresses are actually bed-bug-proof. But Larson says he's seeking grants to increase the number of the shelter's washers and dryers with the hope that someday, new residents could be required to shower and wash their clothes upon arrival. He's also seeking a grant to replace wooden bed frames with metal ones, because the latter are unattractive to the bugs. "It still won't prevent it," he says, "but it will help."

Bed bugs are common in homeless shelters, says Anne Beer, spokesperson for the county's Continuum of Care, a group of homeless providers. Still, not all shelters struggle with them. Sarah Stacey of the Springs Rescue Mission says her organization's emergency winter shelter has been running several years and hasn't had any. "But our shelter is very different," she says. "When you have a cold-weather shelter, people aren't bringing things in, and they're sleeping in their clothes on a bed-bug-proof mat [on the floor]."

Additionally, that shelter has no furniture, bedding is washed daily, and the whole area is hosed out daily.

Lakey, who is now staying with his godmother, says he thinks the R.J. Montgomery Shelter could do more to combat the bugs.

"These are people," he says, referring to shelter residents, "that are trying to get back on their feet, and they're people just like you and me."

Lakey's talked about filing complaints against the shelter for health code violations. But he won't have much luck.

The city's Code Enforcement department will sometimes force landlords or tenants to clean up bed bugs, but Code Enforcement supervisor Tom Wasinger says his department can only get involved in a situation where there is a lease. Homeless shelters — along with hotels and motels — aren't under his purview. Wasinger also asked City Planning whether it regulated shelters and bed bugs; it doesn't.

Danielle Oller, spokesperson for El Paso County Public Health, says that neither her office nor the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has the regulatory authority to inspect, or remove bed bugs from homeless shelters. And she doesn't know of any agency that does.

"The reason is, bed bugs are not considered to transmit disease," she says. "They're a nuisance, but they do not transmit disease."

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