Bedbugs infest women's shelter

Think bedbugs are only the stuff of children's nursery rhymes? Think again.

The Charlotte-area United Family Services domestic violence shelter has evacuated its residents to “a safe place” in order to battle a recent infestation of bedbugs, said Libby McLaughlin, vice president of development and communication. The staff anticipates reopening the shelter in two to three weeks.

But the move has added to the difficulties the women face, which include other time constraints. Shelter rules dictate that, upon arrival, residents have 30 days to find a job and another place to stay.

The bites and rashes from the bedbugs have made it hard for some women to find a job. And the medicine given to fight the itching, such as steroids or Benadryl, has triggered the addictions of some women with substance abuse problems.

“People are saying to go back home,” said one anonymous shelter resident. “I don't have that option, because I'm not going back home.”

Bedbugs, or Cimex lectularius Linnaeus, are tiny brown insects that feed on the blood of humans and animals. A mature adult is about three-sixteenths of an inch long, about the size of an apple seed.

The nocturnal pests have their trade down to a science.

“The bedbug is what we call the vampire of Mother Nature,” said entomologist Cliff Scruggs of Clegg's Termite & Pest Control. “They have perfected the extraction of blood.”

Before a bedbug bites, it injects an anesthetic into the skin of its victim.

“When a mosquito bites you, you feel it,” Scruggs said. “With a bedbug, you don't feel any bite.”

Unlike mosquitoes, which can carry malaria, bedbugs do not transmit communicable diseases.

A bite from a bedbug can produce a pinkish rash about the size of a dime with a darker reddish center. Though irritating and itchy, the rash poses no serious threat to human health.

“This is not a public health pest,” said Lynn Lathan, environmental health supervisor for the Mecklenburg County Health Department. “They're annoying, but not transmitting disease.”

But that's only a small relief to those plagued by the pests.

“You can see them on the white sheets … bigger than a flea,” said one woman forced to evacuate the United Family Services Shelter. “Sometimes you can squish them. When you do, blood comes out of 'em. They come out of the beds. You try to cover up all your body. What can you do but sit and cry?”

Unlike other pests that thrive in squalor – rats or roaches, for example – bedbugs can infest the cleanest of houses.

“It's not a sanitation issue at all,” said Wayne Kinnel, branch manager with Charlotte Terminix. Bedbugs simply have to be introduced to a new surrounding to make themselves at home.

“They're good hitchhikers,” said Russ Griffin, the Charlotte branch manager of Clegg's Termite & Pest Control. “That's how they get around.”

A bedbug's hitchhiking vehicle of choice isn't a car – it's a human. That means buildings with high residence turnover rates – such as hotels, college dormitories, or shelters – are more susceptible to the pests.

The Salvation Army shelter has spent $50,000 in the past few weeks on renovations to rid its space of bedbugs, the Observer has reported.

The United Family Services shelter has invested in new flooring, mattresses and bedding. It has also purchased a new dryer and new metal frame beds.

Exterminators say ridding a home of bedbugs is a difficult and labor-intensive process, even for professionals. The bloodsuckers can burrow anywhere and everywhere – light sockets, the cardboard in coat hangers, crevices in headboards.

“It's almost like moving,” said Griffin. Exterminators typically ask that the area being treated be stripped of everything save bare furniture.

The “ordeal,” as Griffin calls it, is almost like waging war.

For women in the United Family Services shelter, there's a choice: Face the bugs in the shelter, or face abuse at home.

“I have a choice of going back to my husband and getting punched in the eye or getting eaten by bugs,” said one anonymous shelter resident. Assistant Metro Editor Mike Gordon contributed.