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Paradise Lost – Part 2

 Denver VOICE (USA) 28 May 2019

(Originally published: 09/2009) Having risen from the depths of depression Paco and others lose faith and ultimately move on from public housing as an infestation of bedbug’s plagues residents and proves to be too much.  - By Tom DeMers

Denver VOICE

Courtesy of Denver VOICE

I once found a key chain in the Pineview parking lot with this inscription under plastic, "I need more Money & Power and less Shit from you people." The words capture the frustration I heard from Paco and others about Pineview, a public housing facility in Boulder, but might express the feelings of many who depend on public agencies to meet their needs, agencies themselves hampered by acres of regulations passed to protect the public dollar.

Paco's exodus from public housing came about in a clash with our staff. The subject was bedbugs, pests that strike terror in the hearts of housing officials everywhere. Unlike roaches that love sugar and can be controlled with baits and powders, bedbugs feed on human blood and require different toxic applications. In his time at Pineview, Paco had reunited with an old friend, Evelyn. Once only friends, they began dating and she moved into Pineview as his partner. It was August and Evelyn was picking up a lot of itchy mosquito bites. Paco said it was almost a joke, what bait she was for mosquitoes; until one day someone identified her bites as bedbugs.

Oddly enough, on the floor below, Charlene had similar bites, lots of them. Her apartment was directly beneath Paco and Evelyn. When Paco lifted Charlene's mattress, he said the bugs were running everywhere. She had been cohabiting with the bugs for eight months, but was too shy or ashamed to report the problem. She said she got them from Will, her former boyfriend. He paid her a visit some weeks before.

Identifying the problem was both better and worse. The enemy was known, but knowing the voracious little beasts were sucking your blood made night and sleep more than a bit terrifying. Paco said the bugs

themselves were light as fleas and could barely be felt. Only later would their little blood draws itch and become visible. Imagining them was almost as bad as the actual bites.

"Every tickle and sensation made you squirm and scratch. Evelyn got the worst of it," he said. "She was like steak to them. I would watch them crawl across me at night to get to her."

Paco undertook some online research and learned bedbugs are selective feeders with distinct preferences. He suspects that a couple of prescription antidepressants he was taking made him less tasty.

Bedbugs showed up in other apartments as well. A resident two floors above got them, and Paco's pal Beetle also was infected. Of course, Paco put in a call to maintenance right away. The pest company came and sprayed as they would for roaches, with pyrethrum. This took about a week and didn't change anything, especially with Charlene's ongoing infestation downstairs.

Another week went by. More calls and conversations with housing officials and no change. Paco heard about a meeting of the housing authority's board of commissioners. There was an open mic at the start of the meeting where the public could speak. Paco said his presentation was calm, but when Evelyn stood and angrily pulled up the sleeve of her blouse to show how badly bitten she was, the room grew tense. Out of her purse Evelyn pulled a piece of tape with a dozen stuck to it. This turned the heat up further. Meredith, the housing authority director, stepped in and asked one of her staff to confer with Paco and Evelyn about what action should be taken. The staffer promised to call Paco the next morning, but according to Paco, that call never came. Instead, later in the day, Paco called the head of maintenance who told him a meeting on the problem had been held and that more spraying was planned. Paco and Evelyn began to lose faith in the process.

"We asked and talked and pleaded with housing," Evelyn said, "I have five rolls of pictures of bites and fifteen emails I sent."

Over the next few weeks the situation intensified. The Pineview grapevine was spinning the issue as a clear and present danger. Evelyn was constantly being bitten and began sleeping in the tub room (each floor at Pineview has a communal bath tub). "People looked at me like I had leprosy," she said. Paco was out and about trying to rally support among residents; everyone, he argued, was liable to get them.

This is when Ryan caught his bugs from Paco's words. Ryan freely admits to having obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). For Ryan, as for many sufferers, OCD is largely an obsession with order and cleanliness. "If there was a god of hell, who wanted to do the worst possible thing to an OCD person," Ryan exclaims, "bedbugs would be it. I think I went insane about this. Eighteen months later I still have things bagged up, sealed in plastic, waiting to cook in the heat for the third summer to be sure they're dead, and even still I'm not sure if it was actual bedbugs or Paco saying there were bedbugs that was the problem."

Where the bugs came from or who was responsible was never entirely clear. It seems they were part of a nationwide infestation that began about the year 2000. Mention of the itchy critters brought Ryan to his feet in the big middle-class kitchen where we were sitting for an interview. It seemed we were as far from bedbugs as you could get, but not to Ryan. He began to move and wring his hands as he dove into the subject.

"Paco came for me like a magnet, telling how they come out at night to suck your blood and spread from person to person. So we start inspecting my furniture, and sure enough, in one corner of the sofa there is this bug. I grabbed the little bastard and showed him to Paco. He almost yelled, 'That's one! You got one, you got thousands. You got an infestation!'"

"I flipped out. I flipped out totally, and Paco, who was just trying to help-you know him and Evelyn had them really bad-he starts coming to my door and telling me how to get the Clorox and put it around the edge of my bed, how to bag and wash my clothes. He just wouldn't stop!"

Ryan is pacing back and forth between the table and the sink, reliving what clearly was a desperate time.

"Not just once but for weeks he keeps knocking on my door, scaring me to death with his reports of how bad it is in the building. Even now when I see him, still, I cross the street. I can't go near the guy. I like Paco. I know he's a good person, but he was the devil incarnate in my life. He would not stop with this stuff."

"So I start avoiding him, but that's impossible. Like this one time he invites me to his room to see what he's doing, and of course, I can't just tell him to get lost. So we go, and Evelyn opens the door and that little dog jumps out at me, her dog, you know. I am just completely petrified. I used to love that dog, that dog used to love me, but I am convinced the dog is spreading bedbugs, so I am like 'No! No!' and backing away, scared to death!" Ryan pauses to catch his breath. "Is this crazy or what?" he asks me.

"This stuff went on for months," he continues, "while other people start reporting symptoms, and all of a sudden I start to feel something crawling on my skin. I couldn't ever see anything, ever, but I can feel it, and I am convinced I'm infested. Not only that but I am sure I am bringing the bugs with me and infesting others. Like my music students, if they started to itch in the middle of a lesson, Oh, my God! I was sure every person that hugged me or whom I came into contact with, I was infesting that person. That's the ultimate nightmare for OCD, that you are hurting somebody else. So I was like this walking plague. I couldn't see them, but they were biting me over every inch of my body, and I had nowhere to go except home, where I knew every stick of furniture and my mattress were completely infested."

Evelyn was angry. After calling the police and finding out what her rights were, she took to picketing in front of Pineview and calling the local paper. After two days, she moved her protest to the front of the housing authority's main office. She drew bedbugs on her sign and wrote, "Would you live with this? I'm being penalized for my poverty." The newspaper never showed up. "I think the city pulled some strings," she said.

For Paco, it all blew up one morning. "It was so bad one night I went out and slept on the creek side," he said. "It rained on me. I was crawling around in the mud. I came up on the patio and Evelyn was there. I was screaming so loud people on the other side of the building could hear me. I began to throw chairs against the side of the building. I was raving. Evelyn yelled at me to stop or I would be arrested, so I ran away."

Paco's rage had its roots in his childhood. He grew up in Philadelphia, and until he was 5, recalls his father as a pretty normal dad. But one day a jack gave way and an automobile differential fell and crushed several vertebrae in his back. The solution of his bluecollar buddies was to take him to a bar and get him drunk enough to handle the pain. Paco thinks that incident turned his dad into a violent alcoholic, who went on and off the wagon and often beat Paco and his brothers. He recalls the kids pooling their money and buying their dad a belt for Christmas. The man took a razor blade and cut the belt into thin strips which he used to whip the kids like a cat o' nine tails.

His dad also trained boxers and boxed himself. One time Paco remembers his father and another man getting into an argument in a bar. They went out into the parking lot and started to fight. Paco could not believe the fury with which his dad fought. Although he took some punches, "he beat the crap" out of the other man, then threw him into a pig's slop bucket and left him there. From that incident and others Paco learned to despise violence and value justice. "We act out violently when we feel powerless," he tells me. "Instead, we should use anger to motivate us to action to change the situation."

When he ran away from Pineview that rainy morning, Paco said he went to the Sacred Heart of Jesus (church) and prayed for hours. "Afterwards I went to the priest's house and knocked on the door," he said. "Father Jose came out. He had just come here from Mexico. We prayed and talked. He was very wise. I told him I didn't mean to make my landlord my enemy, but we could only take so much. You try getting eaten by bedbugs for eight weeks and see how you feel. It regressed me like crazy."

The prayers worked in a couple of ways. First, Paco's peace returned and he determined to "problem solve this." Then, he says, a kind of miracle occurred. Paco was at the library and saw Meredith (the housing authority director) at a computer terminal. He asked if he could speak with her, and she was very willing to listen. The situation had become really bad for him and Evelyn, he explained, also for Pineview as a community. He told her both he and Evelyn had "psych issues," and that he was afraid for Evelyn, who had once tried suicide. She also had a heart condition.

Meredith listened carefully, asked questions and said she would do what she could. Whether Paco told her he had applied for a Section 8 voucher six years earlier he's not sure, but a week later, he was informed his Section 8 had been approved. It was early October when they moved. They left most of their belongings on the patio until Christmas. Extreme cold will kill bedbugs.

"The problem wasn't the bugs," Paco said. "That was a fact of nature. The problem was an emergency situation that wasn't being treated as such. Housing is like any organization, some people really do their jobs and others just go through the motions. I'm sorry we left under that cloud, but it was serious. We raised hell because no one would pay attention."

After many good years at Pineview, the bugs drove Ryan out too.

"No matter how bad Pineview was," he explains, "I thought I could make use of my time there. My whole life had been run by the anarchy of my obsessive mind, and to stay and increase my understanding that I am not my mind, that my mind is pretty much a big liar, was my way out. Even when things were really bad and the fumigators were telling me I was nuts, I'd say to myself, 'Ryan, you can handle this.' But I couldn't. The bugs got to me. I would wake at three in the morning thinking lice were all over the bed. It went on day after day, night after night.

"Finally I met this musician who told me she had bedbugs, so I confided in her. She took me to her dermatologist, a guy who deals with movie stars and is nationally known. He said, 'You know, Ryan, I don't see evidence of bedbug activity.' And I said, 'What about this constant feeling of something on me, eating me and biting me that I can't see?' He said, 'You need psychotherapy.' I said, 'I've been in therapy my whole life, Doc, for obsessive compulsive disorder which this may be.' He said, 'Well, then you know what you're doing,' and he put a smile on his face and walked out."

"He only saw me for three minutes. It was the biggest slap in the face I'd ever gotten in my life. I was humiliated."

Ryan is leaning against the marble-topped kitchen island as he speaks. He slowly lowers himself to a stool and sits. "It's not totally gone, but maybe I'm waking up to sanity about it."

"The real contagion was between you and Paco," I venture. "He spoke and you caught the bugs from his words."

After Paco and Evelyn left the number of infected units tripled. The pest control company was fired and replaced. Today, nearly five years later, the problem persists, but residents treat it as a fact of life, one of the penalties of being poor.

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