Citing an increase in hoarding and bedbugs among older residents, advocates are pushing the District to allocate more money to combat both. The two often go together and can create a Catch-22.
“We can’t get home and health services to go into a bedbug-infested apartment, but in order to get anyone to come in and clean on a regular basis, you’ve got to get the place clean first,” said Fiona Druy, a gerontological nurse practitioner with Iona Senior Services, one of eight nonprofit lead agencies that work with the city’s Office on Aging in providing services for seniors. “It’s a costly and challenging problem.”
The city’s Office on Aging already sets aside $47,000 a year to deep-clean hoarders’ homes but does not earmark money specifically for bedbugs. At a senior roundtable in December held before the city council’s committee on housing and community development, advocates requested that a fund be created for bedbugs and that additional money go toward hoarding.
“We’re seeing more cases” of both, said Jennifer Berger, supervising attorney of AARP Legal Counsel for the Elderly, which provides free legal and social work services to District residents 60 and older. “Ninety percent of the cases that our social workers see have housekeeping or hoarding issues, and about 20 percent of that group have bedbug issues.” Her organization alone counted 92 new hoarding cases in the past two years, in addition to unresolved cases from earlier years.
Bedbugs do not cause or spread disease, but their bites are itchy and irritating, and the social stigma can be severe. For older, low-income adults, they can be especially hard to combat. Clothes, furniture and carpeting must undergo a deep cleaning or disposal before pesticides can be applied, posing a challenge to those unable to move heavy items, launder all their possessions or buy new furniture.
While landlords of multi-unit buildings are generally responsible for treating infested units, it is often up to the tenants to remove and clean their belongings. Preparing a one-bedroom apartment in advance of extermination averages $600 — a daunting amount for those on a fixed income.
Hoarding, a behavioral disorder causing people to fill their homes with untenable amounts of possessions, often requires counseling before a resident will allow decluttering and cleaning to take place. Hoarders run a higher risk of fires or in-home accidents, as well as eviction. The city’s fund pays for a onetime heavy cleaning that costs $675 to $1,000 for a one-bedroom apartment, or $1,400 if a Dumpster is required, according to Sally White, Iona’s executive director.
Iona, which serves Ward 3, and the other lead agencies can draw from small discretionary funds meant to help with such issues as overdue rent, cut-off utilities or urgent plumbing needs, but in the past two years, they say, much of it has gone toward bedbugs.
“Mattresses alone are a few hundred dollars,” said Anita Ballantyne, program director for tenant services at the nonprofit Housing Counseling Services, which works with tenant groups in the District. “In every building we have, there’s always somebody with bedbugs.”
If the city had a fund for bedbugs, she said, “there would be such a run on those funds. . . . People would definitely use it.”
City officials say they are open to the idea of additional funds but have not received a concrete request for fiscal year 2017.
Laura Newland, acting executive director for the Office on Aging, said that several months ago she requested a proposal from LCE and from Iona, outlining the need.
The mayor is reviewing proposed budgets from agencies now, although Newland said she could still amend hers. The oversight hearing is Feb. 12, and the budget hearing is in April.
Berger said her office is still assessing the need and planned to submit a proposal soon. She estimated that they would likely seek at least an additional $50,000 to alleviate bedbugs and hoarding.
Left untreated, bedbugs can easily permeate walls and spread to adjoining units — and sometimes invade entire apartment complexes. Tenants unable or unwilling to do the prep work can face eviction. And the problem may soon get stickier: A study published recently found that many bedbugs have built up resistance to some of the most widely used chemicals.
The department of health offers education to residents about preventing and controlling infestations, and trains home health aides to spot signs of bedbugs.
“We try to teach people some simple methods, low-cost ways that they can help themselves,” said Gerard Brown, program manager of the department’s rodent and vector control division. “If they put that stuff in a dryer for 20 minutes it will kill them, and we tell them to vacuum a lot.” However, he said, some seniors cannot accomplish those tasks.