Bedbugs are back

Tiny, tough parasites are spreading through San Francisco.

By Camille T. Taiara

BEDBUGS – ; tiny parasites that are notoriously difficult to kill or contain – have returned to San Francisco and other major American cities.

They feed on sleeping humans, leaving red welts that one healthcare worker describes as "mosquito bites on steroids." But the health implications aren't as big a deal as the simple, unnerving yuck factor: Nobody – rich or poor, local or tourist – wants to be eaten as they sleep.

Over the past three or four years, bedbugs have increasingly infested San Francisco homeless shelters and single-room occupancy hotels – particularly in the Tenderloin, SoMa, and the northern Mission District. Those in the know say it's just a matter of time before these tenacious, almost imperceptibly small creatures spread throughout the city, as they've already begun to do in New York.

While property owners have had some success in addressing the infestations on a case-by-case basis, city officials still have made little headway in producing a coordinated, comprehensive plan for staving them off.

Sam Dodge of the Central City SRO Collaborative, which has been helping educate and organize tenants about the bedbug problem, warns that these parasites "are indiscriminate in terms of class."

The bitten

Steve Rodriguez isn't the type to get freaked out by vermin. In fact, the opposite may be true: An affable but eccentric throwback to the early days of punk rock, the 51-year-old has a fascination with things morbid. He wears his black hair pulled back in a ponytail and secondhand clothes, always black.

A faded, amateurish tattoo of a large spider and human skulls peeks out from under his shirt collar. An old "God Save the Queen" poster and another showing silk-screened impressions of Charles Manson decorate the dirty walls of his room: a cramped, dingy box at the Post Hotel, downtown. A faux leopard-skin comforter and pillow are rolled up against one wall.

Rodriguez told the Bay Guardian he hadn't noticed the bedbugs at first, until his boyfriend started getting big red welts on his body last June that a nurse at the Tom Waddell Health Center first thought might be a particularly bad case of scabies.

Then, one day in August, "I was in the mirror, looking at my hair or something," Rodriquez recounts. "I looked down and saw these white things crawling on my pants.... Before they bite you, they're white. They look like lice, and they're the size of lice when they hatch. But once they bite you, they turn red."

They also expand, shedding their exoskeletons much as a snake sheds its skin as it grows.

"When I saw the red ones, that's when I moved out," Rodriguez said.

For six weeks he would spray his room with pesticides twice a day while staying with friends. He got rid of all his clothes and many of his other belongings – magazines, stereo speakers, a sleeping bag.

"I threw a lot of stuff away," he told us.

When we called the Post Hotel for comment, the man who answered the phone identified himself as Imran Saleem and told us the hotel was under new management as of Dec. 1. He said, "The complaints happened before we took charge of the place" and that the new owners would be bringing in a pest control service on a regular basis.

While Rodriguez's bedbug infestation seems to be under control for the time being, Donna Muir, a 55-year-old resident at the Knox SRO, a couple miles away, still struggles to rid her room of the parasites, which she says have haunted her on and off for nine months.

"They come out at night when the lights are off," she told us. "I've seen them when they were actually embedded in my ankles, feeding. It's really gross.... I went crazy. I tried to pick them off. I put alcohol on my legs and ankles.

"You can't sleep at night because they're chewing all over you."

Muir, who has a history of substance abuse but says she has been drug-free for five years now, suffers from a failing liver and doesn't have much time left to live. The bedbug problem has exacerbated her poor health condition, yet her liver condition won't allow her to use pesticides in her room.

"I'm really clean," she said. "I vacuum every day."

Hotel management has replaced the beds in all 140 units of the building and has taken extensive measures to address the problem, says Marsha Jackson, regional manager for the John Stewart Company, which manages the building. In Muir's room the company also patched and repainted the walls and replaced the carpet. The problem went away for a while, but Muir said the bedbugs returned.

"This morning I got up to take a shower," she told us Dec. 1. "Soon as I put my feet on the carpet, I got them again."

According to Jackson, however, the problem's all but solved. They've installed bedbug monitor strips in every room, and only two showed evidence of continued infestation when read Dec. 2, she told us.

"We understand we have to treat the problem aggressively."

They're back

Bedbugs have always been around, but they were virtually extinguished in developed countries more than 50 years ago. Theories differ about why they've been making a comeback, from the ban on DDT to resistance to newer insecticides.

Aside from the bites they leave on one's skin – the reaction to which varies from person to person – telltale signs of bedbugs' presence include the blood marks and feces they deposit on bedclothes and mattresses.

Bedbugs travel easily from place to place – through walls and on people's clothes and luggage.

"[Adult bedbugs] can survive for up to a year without blood, allowing infestations to persist through periods when properties are vacant," James Owen wrote in a May 13, 2004, article for National Geographic.

The key to getting rid of them, though, "is not the chemicals," insists Pestec CEO Luis Agurto, who's been exterminating bugs in San Francisco since 1985. Rather, it's the comprehensive effort needed on the part of building owners, tenants, and maintenance and cleaning crews.

For the elderly or disabled, he said, social service agencies are needed to provide in-home support and can help pack up a person's belongings in preparation for treatment or relocate tenants and help them with extra expenses.

The work involves throwing out as many objects in the room as possible and either freezing the rest for 48 hours or exposing them to high temperatures, thoroughly washing everything, and sealing cracks in the walls and floors.

The hardest part is getting the eggs. Seven to ten days after the initial extermination, the treatment must be repeated to target newly hatched bugs, he said.

"This is very labor intensive, and a very intrusive job," said Agurto, who explained that pest extermination companies have only recently been coming up to speed on how to treat the problem.

A recent New York Times article highlighted how the problem has reached epidemic proportions in that city and is affecting everyone from hobos to the richest of the rich along ritzy Fifth Avenue.

Goodnight, sleep tight

Here in San Francisco, exact figures are harder to come by because the city's Department of Public Health doesn't automatically track bug infestation reports by the type of insect involved.

"It seemed to start out at hostels, places where you'd find travelers coming through," inspector Eric Mar, who handles inspections of SROs and homeless shelters for the city, told us. "They came in with the luggage."

Mar said he started receiving complaints about bedbugs about four years ago, but they were rare. The number of complaints has increased every year since then, reaching 134 so far this year. And that doesn't count cases where people simply contact the building manager and never call DPH.

"We've been working on it for three years, and it's just gotten worse and worse," Dodge of the Central City SRO Collaborative reported, adding that just one of their organizers has found 52 buildings with bedbug infestations in several units in the last year – and about half of them were standard apartment buildings rather than SROs.

Dodge and others told us they'd heard reports of infestations in five-star hotels and in single-family homes, although we've been unable to confirm that through DPH so far.

DPH environmental health director Rajiv Bhatia didn't return our calls by press time, but in a Nov. 18 letter to Sup. Chris Daly, Bhatia wrote that DPH has distributed pamphlets about the bedbug problem in four languages, conducted trainings, and "is planning a bedbug eradication workshop in SRO Hotels in spring 2006."

Private entities seem to be the main ones acting on the problem so far, but it's really a public policy issue that they have a limited capacity to address, said Cathy Craig, a senior program officer at nonprofit Local Initiatives Support Corporation. She's been coordinating a recently formed bedbug task force made up mostly of nonprofit development companies and private organizations serving affordable-housing landlords and tenants.

Others, like DPH inspector Mar and Tom Waddell clinic medical director Barry Zevin, agree that education is key but also warn against creating unnecessary panic. They say bedbugs have not been known to transmit disease and that comprehensive efforts – in shelters, for example – have helped mitigate the problem.

"The potential is there for it to be another way to discriminate against homeless people," Zevin cautioned.

That said, it'll take a lot more public consciousness around the issue – and a concerted effort by the city – to stem the tide.

"When you go to the theater," Agurto the exterminator warned, "if you sit down and feel a bite, it could be a bedbug."

E-mail Camille T. Taiara at camille@sfbg.com.