Chronic bedbug infestation afflicts Lawrence’s homeless shelter

photo by: Nick Krug

This file photo from Jan. 17, 2018, shows beds in the men's sleeping dorm at the Lawrence Community Shelter.

For at least a year and a half, those who rely on Lawrence’s homeless shelter have also had to contend with the shelter’s chronic bedbug infestation.

One woman staying at the Lawrence Community Shelter, who did not want to be publicly identified, told the Journal-World she had received multiple bites and that the bugs had burrowed into her personal belongings, which she was carrying with her. Trails of red welts could be seen on her body.

Lawrence Community Shelter Assistant Director Charles Frager said the shelter has been struggling to deal with the infestation of bedbugs since at least the summer of 2017. Frager said that the bedbugs were concentrated in the shelter’s dormitory area and that the shelter had done monthly chemical and spot treatments. He said that, while the number of bugs had “severely declined,” the shelter had not been able to eradicate them entirely.

Frager said the bugs could be brought in and spread among guests. The pests, which feed on human blood, have been able to maintain their population behind baseboards, by entering tears in plastic mattress covers and by laying eggs in the grain of bed frames, which are wooden.

“The fact is that we have beds that they can seek refuge in, and we have mattresses with tears in them,” Frager said. “We eliminate them in one spot, and it’s going to re-infest.”

photo by: Mike Yoder

Lawrence Community Shelter, 3655 E. 25th St.

However, Frager said the shelter had begun some new tactics to treat the infestation, including heat treatments for personal belongings, and that additional changes were on the way.

The Journal-World found that complaints about the shelter’s bedbug infestation have been made to state and local governments. Charlie Bryan, of the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department, said a complaint was made to the state health department, which was forwarded to the county in June 2017. Bryan said the health department provided the shelter recommendations and education at that time regarding how to address bedbug infestations.

Complaints have also been filed with the City of Lawrence, which has bedbug infestation regulations in its property maintenance code. The regulations require property owners to refer infestations to a licensed pest control company for treatment and extermination.

Code Enforcement Manager Brian Jimenez said that a bedbug complaint regarding the shelter was filed with the city in August 2017, and that at that time the city confirmed that the shelter had hired an exterminator but that the city does not conduct inspections to determine if bedbugs have been eliminated. Jimenez said another bedbug complaint was filed against the shelter on Friday.

Jimenez said that the transient nature of the population served by the shelter created an ongoing problem and that the city was satisfied that the shelter was taking steps to address the infestation. He said the shelter had been in communication with city staff about the recent complaint and that if the city received more complaints, an additional follow-up would be conducted.

Specifically, Frager said that about three weeks ago the shelter began operating special heater boxes, which are about the size of a closet and are used to heat the belongings of those staying at the shelter to a high temperature, killing the bugs. In addition, he said that the shelter had received a grant to buy new metal bed frames and treated mattresses, which are scheduled to arrive sometime this month. He said that chemical treatments would also be done behind baseboards and walls.

Frager said bedbugs seriously affected the quality of life for people and also made staff more hesitant to go to the dormitory to interact with guests. For those wanting to leave the shelter, bedbugs also make it harder to find a place to lease, he said.

“The sooner we can get rid of them, the sooner we will be doing a serious service for our guests,” Frager said.

Kansas Department of Agriculture Communications Director Heather Lansdowne said that though the department does lodging inspections, that it doesn’t have authority to oversee the shelter because it doesn’t charge.


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