Opinion: Hitchhiker bed bugs swarm homeless people | David Heitz


Photo byJP Valery/Unsplash

There are those who like to say that bed bugs swarm people experiencing homelessness because they are dirty.

That’s not the case. Bed bugs flock to homeless people because the insects are hitchhikers.

Few people have to keep moving all day long like homeless people. “Move along to where?” is the common response people experiencing homelessness give to those who seek to displace them.

A person experiencing homelessness may go from a shelter in the morning to a coffee line, and from there to a lunch line, and from there to a day shelter. They essentially keep moving all day, and blood-thirsty bed bugs hitch rides in their backpacks, on blankets, and on second-hand clothing.

In the end, shelters become veritable breeding nests for bed bugs. When I experienced homelessness, the bed bugs especially were heinous at Salvation Army Crossroads homeless shelter. The bugs would emerge from cracks in the floor.

Will they really crawl into your mouth?

I knew nothing about the pests the first time I saw one. A fellow homeless person told me the bugs would crawl right into your mouth when you sleep (this never happened to me). Numerous pest extermination companies online say that while it can happen, it’s not likely to happen.

Fortunately, shelters do work to keep bed bugs at bay. “Unfortunately, bed bugs travel on individuals and their belongings, so bed bugs can be reintroduced into the shelter at any time,” said Emily Williams in an email to NewsBreak. Williams is director of communications and marketing for the city’s Department of Housing Stability, or HOST. “A few things we recommend are proper individual storage of personal belongings, frequent cleaning and disinfecting, changing out linens regularly, spacing sleeping areas apart as much as possible, drying linens in high heat (this kills the bed bugs), and regular treatment of the facility.”

Intense heat kills bed bugs

One of the only ways to decimate a bed bug infestation is to turn the heat up – way up. “We also know that some shelters use hot box tents and heat storage rooms to handle bed bugs situations with personal belongings and clothing, which is a good practice to limit bed bugs in the facility,” Williams said.

Williams said both of their 48th Avenue shelters have heat treatment rooms built into the facility design. According to Michigan State University, bed bugs in homeless shelters are a common problem. But shelters should never turn someone away because of bed bugs, according to the university.


Photo byOrkin

“Unfortunately, bed bugs travel on individuals and their belongings, so bed bugs can be reintroduced into the shelter at any time,” according to the Michigan State University website. “They may be exposed to the insects in emergency shelters, transitional housing, motels and hotels, homes of friends, as well as other places they may spend the night. After being exposed, they can inadvertently move bed bugs from place to place, including into homeless shelters.”

When I experienced homelessness in 2019, there were no bed bug inspections as people entered Denver shelters. The extension recommends screening shelter occupants for the pests. “Clients can be asked about whether they’ve been exposed to bed bugs while they’re being questioned about other public health pests such as lice, scabies and whether they have cockroach allergies or asthma,” according to the extension. “In some cases, bites will be evident, but the client may not know or be concerned that they have been exposed to bed bugs.”

Mayoral candidate complaints about bugs

Jesse Lashawn Parris, a candidate for Denver mayor, recently complained to the City Council of a bed bug infestation at Fusion Studios, where this writer lives. Fusion is a Colorado Coalition for the Homeless property.

Building management is doing everything it can to get rid of the bugs at Fusion, including spraying any room where a tenant asks for it. I chose to get rid of bed bugs in my room on my own and spent more than $300 on bug spray.

A report by Orkin earlier this month showed Denver ranks 15th in the nation among major cities with bed bug problems. Orkin ranked the cities based on bed bug exterminations performed during the previous year. Chicago ranked first. New York, Los Angeles, Detroit and Washington, DC also made the top ten.

Leave a Comment