By Robin Stover, Esq. of Gulfcoast Legal Services (GLS), a non-profit legal aid organization.
Research by Emily Burwell, University of Florida Levin College of Law, Class of 2022.
I promised my distraught client, 83 year old Margie, that we would get the eviction lawsuit and the problem behind us by Halloween. My fingers were crossed.
Jump to the story’s end – success! Women United of United Way South Sarasota County, Gulfcoast Legal Services, Navamaze, and Land of Sleep mobilized to prevent the eviction of a vulnerable senior resident of Venice.
In late July 2021, Margie faced an eviction complaint due to a bed bug infestation. An apartment building had filed an eviction against her for failure to rectify “a serious violation of the material terms” of her lease. According to the eviction complaint, Margie had continually failed to prepare her unit for bed bug treatment.
The first reaction to bed bugs is an uncomfortable gasp. Those with experience, share a grim simpatico forged from the trauma. Those to whom the concept is new are appalled.
Bed bugs are a psychological and practical nightmare. To treat bed bugs, you have to uproot your home. Every corner and fold of fabric holds fear. Extermination requires repeated expensive treatments.
Bed bugs ride into new areas by hitchhiking. They travel on luggage, furniture, clothing, or bedding from an infested area to a new home. They don’t discriminate. A bed bug can slip into the blankets of the finest hotel, traveling on designer luggage. However, infestations are much more likely in multi-unit housing with smaller apartments, and where management relies on tenants to report problems. Bed bugs take time and expense to remove, and are much more prevalent in dense, low income housing.
Bed bugs are only about 3/16 inches long, and their eggs are tiny specs. Bed bugs feed on blood, usually at night by using their long beaks to pierce the exposed skin of their sleeping hosts. The bite itself is painless, and people don’t know they been bitten – until morning comes. Bed bugs hide on sofas and clothes. Young bed bugs, called nymphs, mature in about a month and produce new generations. The lifespan is about 10 months. This is a quick reproductive cycle and bed bug infestations take off quickly and without early notice.
Studies show that bed bugs leave psychological effects, even after successful extermination. One study found that 81% of bed bug victims reported paranoia, trouble sleeping, nightmares, anxiety and hyper levels of vigilance, lasting well longer than the infestation.
Bed bugs invade our safest space – our home; our bed. A small, invasive creature, set on biting us while we sleep, can terrify even the most competent and reasonable of people. There is a sense that you can’t escape because where we live, they live.
Eradicating bed bugs requires methodical planning, competent preparation, and vigilant follow-up. Many people can’t identify a bed bug, and awareness dawns only after an infestation is present.
Margie lives in a low-income “senior living” building. It makes sense that the vulnerable elderly are less aware, less vigilant, less knowledgeable, and less able to report bed bugs and proactively participate in their extermination.
Margie has no family here. Her memory is failing, and so are her legs and back. She must sleep with a CPAP machine. She relies on scheduled public transportation to take her shopping and to the doctor. She’s alone except for neighbors. She’s eligible for a variety of the excellent services this area provides to seniors. However, when bed bugs appear, the policy of social service organizations is to stop services. No agency can send a volunteer or a social worker into a bed bug infestation. It’s too easy to bring the bugs back out. “As soon as the apartment is cleared,” agencies are happy to again provide services.
Bed bugs come with humiliation, embarrassment, and ostracism, especially for those living in a close community. Margie feels this deeply – even though she bears no fault. There is something particularly distasteful and about bed bugs that sets them apart from other insects.
Margie says that she wasn’t the only resident with bed bugs — at first. When the word went out, “Terror struck in the heart of everyone.” Instructions were given. Standard procedure is to gather all fabric items – clothes, towels, bedding, pillows, and seal everything into plastic bags in preparation for professional treatment. Affected residents huddled in their respective units to prepare for the extermination company.
But Margie, with her age, cognitive decline, memory lapses, and physical limitations, was told that she “had not complied with orders.” Bed bugs remained in her apartment and hence, after months of isolation and no proactive help, the eviction lawsuit was filed.
When I visited her in late July, she had her piles of black garbage bags in the middle of her apartment. Given her limitations, she’d done all she could do. The bags had been there for months. She was using one towel and wearing the same five items of washed clothing on repeat, so as not to expose other fabric to the bugs. Unfortunately, bed bug infestations were rampant in her bed and sofa. Even though at one point, her mattress had been sealed in a plastic covering, bed bugs were evident in the folds of the plastic. She couldn’t quite understand or believe that she faced eviction in a matter of days. “The eviction notice was traumatic.”
Margie called GLS about a month after the lawsuit had been filed. Not a moment too soon. After filing amended pleadings in the lawsuit, I contacted the attorney for the apartment complex. She readily agreed to work with us. Margie was given more time to prepare for a further treatment. Margie’s’ infested bed was removed and replaced with a temporary air mattress. More plastic bags were filled and piled into the shower area. Furniture was moved away from walls as instructed. Every closet was emptied. Every room was vacuumed. The only solution at this point was an all-out effort to comply with the extermination company’s requirements. Margie fell out of her air mattress bed a few times while awaiting the extermination treatments. It was grueling.
The extermination company performed three more treatments and inspections. The apartment was cleared and deemed completely free of bed bugs in late October 2021.
When a lawsuit is filed, attorney fees and costs pile up quickly. Margie, as the “at fault” party, was responsible to pay all the attorney fees and costs incurred by the apartment complex. Paying these significant fees and costs had to happen before the lawsuit could be dismissed. The terms of the agreement were impossible for her. A payment of well over $500 per month was required for several months, on top of her monthly rent. Margie’s sole source of monthly income is a small social security check, setting her below poverty level. Her housing cost is subsidized. The bed bugs were gone, but the eviction lawsuit remained because fees and costs had to be paid as part of any settlement.
Gulfcoast Legal Services made a call to Barbara Cruz, President & CEO of United Way South Sarasota County. The first words from Barbara were, “Don’t worry, we’ve got you.” Barbara mobilized the newly launched Women United group of United Way of South Sarasota County. Women United, chaired by Mel Thomas, is a fundraising affinity group of dynamic women in South Sarasota with the current mission of funding efforts to prevent eviction and mitigate homelessness. Women United immediately galvanized, and funds were secured to settle the fees and costs of Margie’s eviction. The lawsuit was dismissed on October 21, 2021, due to the caring power of Women United.
Aimee Holmes, Director of Business Development at Navamaze, and Women United member, quickly offered Margie a brand new queen sized bed. Navamaze serves older adults and their families by providing ethical consulting, care coordination and coaching services during life transitions. Aimee was keenly aware that a senior’s security and comfort can be renewed by something as basic as a new bed. She didn’t hesitate.
Paula and Patrick Carney, owners of Navamaze, are the epitome of service over decades of community involvement. They immediately donated a full set of new bedding to Margie to make the transition complete.
Land of Sleep, a family owned business since 1974, volunteered to deliver and set up the new bed. Lisa Morse, one of the owners, provided insight by explaining that Land of Sleep delivers thousands of new beds a year, and goes for years without seeing a situation like that faced by Margie. She emphasized that the rarity of the incident prompted Land of Sleep to step in and help. The team at Land of Sleep know better than anyone that the comfort and serenity stemming from a brand new bed are priceless.
Margie is recovering from her ordeal. She’s exhausted, and in a gentle voice explains that, “I’ve been so unnerved by all of this I still haven’t been able to open up all the bags. There’s mail I haven’t opened. Bug bugs nearly wiped out the joy of life for me.” With a grin she added, “Fortunately I have a good T.V.” Margie is a gracious woman, with a dry sense of humor and a dose of determination. She appreciates that it took a community effort to end her nightmare. She can look forward to a peaceful holiday season.