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Parasite City

A gnawing bed bug problem grows in Southeast Baltimore

Photographs By Frank Klein

By Edward Ericson Jr. | Posted 7/1/2009

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Mark Adams tilts up the plastic-encased mattress he and his wife sleep on and peels the bed frame's oak slats one by one from their Velcro fasteners. "There's one," he says, holding the slat like a club to reveal a brownish, reddish insect about the size of an apple seed crawling groggily from the black mesh.

Adams plugs in the $41 steamer he bought last night, waits a few seconds for it to warm, and then steams the bug, which falls dead on the refinished pine floor.

"Here's a fucker in here, too--couple of 'em," he says, turning the steam wand to the corner of the bed frame to dispatch another two. There are more stuck to the double-sided tape on which the bed frame's legs rest, more still in the bathroom. "What I'm going to do is steam all the gaps between the [floor] boards," Adams pledges, "and then put double-sided tape against the wall."

Adams has sores on his hands and feet, despite sleeping each night in a sweat suit, with thick socks, gloves, and elastic bands around his wrists and ankles to keep out the insectile vampires. He hasn't slept well in months. He says his wife, Cathy, is nearly apoplectic from the stress.

Adams is battling bed bugs.

They are fiendishly hard to eradicate, tougher than roaches, silent as a draft. Adams and his wife noticed the bites on their skin in February and have been dealing with the infestation ever since. Lots of their neighbors in Southeast Baltimore have them too.

The problem has been growing in Baltimore. In 2006, the city recorded just nine calls to its 311 hotline that mentioned bed bugs. There were 31 such calls in 2007, and 75 for 2008. There were 18 calls through April of 2009, two more than in the same period last year. But the 311 calls almost certainly understate the problem.

In Butchers Hill, where Mark Adams lives, people whose homes have been infested say they have noticed a pattern: Spanish-speaking immigrants rent a rowhouse, and soon it becomes overcrowded. Mattresses are discarded on the street, leaning against fences or in areaways. Then neighboring homes are infested with bed bugs.

That was the pattern at Adams' home at 209 S. Chester St. Adams says a neighbor counted 15 people leaving 211 S. Chester one weekday morning. "You could see bunk beds pushed up against the front windows," he adds.

Adams has spent the past several months documenting the situation while trying to get the home's owners, Silver Spring's Andrew McLean and Allison Adams-McLean (no relation to Mark Adams), to acknowledge his problem and help fix it. He noted mattresses discarded--at least one was pushed out an upper-floor window. No one would answer the door when city health inspectors knocked at 211 S. Chester on May 20, 21, and 22, he says. A man leaving the home on the afternoon of June 19 walked quickly away when approached by a City Paper photographer.

"This is a Latino issue," Adams says. "People are calling me a racist for saying this, but I haven't found this issue anywhere where it didn't coincide with 15 Latinos living in a house."

Bed bugs have reemerged worldwide since the late 1990s, in fancy hotels and seedy motels, in nursing homes and dormitories across America, across all strata of society. In February, Goucher College evacuated students from their living quarters because of a bed bug outbreak.

But in the southeastern Baltimore City neighborhoods of Butchers Hill, Upper Fells Point, Fells Prospect, and Highlandtown, the trouble has often attached itself to and spread out from de facto rooming houses filled with extended families and working men.

The Baltimore City Health Department itself acknowledges the correlation, though not the causation, in a "Bed Bug Response Plan" it quietly released on April 20. "Pest control companies and the Hispanic Apostolate noted the pronounced bed bug problem in the Latino community, perhaps due to travel and frequent relocations," the plan notes.

Asked during a June 8 phone conversation to expand on that observation, three Baltimore Health Department officials say nothing for several seconds. "I think that's where we've seen a fair amount of our complaints coming in," Interim Commissioner Olivia Farrow finally says, speaking of the Latino community. But she and others stress, bed bugs are not confined to the Hispanic population.

"Bed bugs don't discriminate," says Sarah Norman, chief of the city Lead, Asthma and Injury Prevention bureau. "All they care about is whether you're alive."

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