Bed Bugs In Public Housing, Woman Alleges

TimesUnion.com
Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Teresa Grocki diligently steams her floor and mattress, scrubs her clothes and takes two scalding hot showers a day. At night, she turns on her special overhead fluorescent spotlights.

But on Tuesday night, the 59-year-old resident of Stonequist Apartments tried a new approach to fighting what she said was bed bugs in her home. She attended a City Council meeting to inform the community that the 176-unit high rise - the city's largest public housing tenement - was infested with the pests, and urged city leaders to find funding to eradicate them. (see accompanying video)

Bed Bugs - brown, wingless parasites that feed on human blood at night - have proliferated around this tourist town throughout the last 3-5 years, pest control workers said Wednesday. The insects prefer to nest in seams of mattresses and sofas, but also in crevices of all kind. Their bites itch, and can result in skin rashes, allergies and other health problems. They hitch hike aboard humans, luggage, clothing and more.

"I had thought I was losing my dignity by speaking like this, but I find I have found dignity by speaking out," Grocki told the council. Fighting back tears, she said, "We don't want this to grow. We don't want this to be a secret anymore."

Bed bugs can also pose psychological challenges, and their reputation of existing in only unsanitary conditions makes them hard to discuss, Grocki said. In a follow-up interview Wednesday, she alleged that Edward Spychalski, director of the Saratoga Springs Housing Authority, warned residents in August not to tell members of the media about the bed bug problems in the Federal Street building, which is home to low and moderate income residents. Spychalski told those who lived there that he didn't have the money to fix the problem, and if they didn't like the living conditions, they could move, Grocki said.

Spychalski did not respond to request for a comment. The Saratoga Springs Housing Authority is a federally funded government agency that operates under the auspices of the mayor, according to its website.

Mayor Scott Johnson said Wednesday that his office had sent a code enforcement officer to the high rise after recently being contacted about a possible bug problem. The city wants to assist residents, but it was trying to determine who had jurisdiction over the matter, Johnson said.

Several Stonequist residents signed statements of support for exterminating the bed bugs in Stonequist. Backed by a handful of other residents of the apartment building, Grocki delivered the signatures to the City Council. Grocki said her objective was not to attack Spychalski, but draw attention to the bed bugs and need for funding.

The bugs likely arrived with travelers from other cities, said James Wang, owner of Able Pest Control. "I would get calls only occasionally five years ago. Now, every week I get calls for bed bugs, sometimes every day," Wang said. The insects concentrate in the downtown parts of cities, especially in hotels, motels and apartment buildings, he said.

Luis Pabon, technical director at CatsEye Pet Control, burns or freezes the bugs. Removing bed bugs from a huge building is an expensive project that can take months, even years, because every room that surrounds an infested room must be completely treated and maintained, Pabon said. Even five-star hotels get bed bugs, he said.

"Because of the negative stigma associated with bed bugs, a lot of people have a tendency to keep it quiet, which isn't the best approach," Pabon said.

The Saratoga County Health Department does not track bed bugs.

Grocki moved to the city from Miami seven years ago. She lives in a 400-square-foot apartment near the middle of the nine-story building. She pays rent through Social Security disability payments. She found her first bed bug on her pillow during the early morning of Nov. 7. She captured it and saved it in a jar. She's suffered numerous bites and bouts of itching.

Getting rid of the bed bugs in Stonequist Apartments would cost about $25,000, Grocki said, citing an estimate that a pest control company recently gave her. She says she wants her old life - her old sleeping patterns - back.

"Really, I loved living here until Nov. 7," Grocki said. "Now, I'm terrified."