featured Poverty

Bedbugs drive senior out of his public housing apartment

Gary Aitchison. Photo Judy Haiven

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – Gary Aitchison had to plan ahead whenever he left his Halifax apartment. Most days, either the night before or in the morning before he stepped outside, Aitchison would take a big garbage bag with what he wanted to wear that day — his socks, underwear, trousers, shirt, coat and shoes to the laundromat in his building, pop them into the dryer and set it on high for about 40 minutes. 

“I had to make sure the stuff was bug free,” he said. He heated the clothes to kill any bedbugs which could have been hiding in the folds, the pockets or in the hems of his clothing.

If he heated his clothes the night before, he would return the clothes to the bag and tie it up tightly. If he heated the clothes in the morning, he put them on – still warm. Only then did he feel he could “safely” go out for the day. 

See also: ′I still can′t sleep′ – When bedbugs infest your apartment

Aitchison can barely remember a time he did not have to go through this rigmarole. He said his apartment was littered with at least six big green or blue plastic bags full of his clothes which he tied up tightly so “nothing would get in them. “

Imagine having to dry and store his clothes either the evening prior or in the morning just before going out for the day—whether to the library, to play bridge, to attend a music recital—or even to visit a friend in their home.  

“Well,” Aitchison laughed, ”I couldn’t even go to my sister’s for Christmas dinner because she was worried about the bedbugs. I haven’t been able to play duplicate bridge because my friend wouldn’t allow me in his apartment or his vehicle unless I got rid of the bedbugs. Another friend who I play bridge with won’t let me play bridge at her home either.” 

Aitchison, an active 71 year old, has lived in an apartment in Gordon B. Isnor Manor for more than 15 years. He has an arts degree from Saint Mary’s University and used to work as permanent, then  ‘casual’ staff in the federal civil service. Before moving into Gordon B. Isnor, he lived for years in Shelburne County as the caregiver for his mother until her death.  

Over the last six or eight years at Gordon B. Isnor, his apartment has been infested with bedbugs and mice. He says all the residents of the building suffer from the same problem. “You walk out the back doors of the building and you see the mice running all through the garbage that’s piled up there.”  

Today however, Aitchison lives in a room in a downtown Halifax hotel. He has been there since November 11, 2019. 

This is the story about how he came to live in a hotel. 

“On Armistice day, I moved out of my apartment. I was debating that morning whether to kill myself or go to Emergency. A month earlier, I had woken up in the night and saw six bedbugs crawling on me. I called Emergency and they wouldn’t help me. They said ‘we’re not here for bedbugs’.”  

On Nov. 11, Aitchison went to the Remembrance Day service at Camp Hill and stayed for the reception.  He noted that despite some veterans having a form of dementia, they were all well-treated and living in a good environment. This underscored how abysmal his own living situation was. 

He decided not to return to his apartment at the Manor—not to live there, not to visit there, and not even to pick up some treasured possessions there. He needed a place to stay that was free of bed bugs. 

The constant anxiety, the loneliness and the fear of having friends reject him because of the bedbugs, drove Aitchison to check into the hotel. 

“They asked for my credit card, not really anything else. I booked in for a week and each Monday I have to renew that. At first, I didn’t tell the people at the hotel why, I just said I needed a room. I was afraid they wouldn’t let me stay.  I was embarrassed and so I didn’t tell them why –at first,” admitted Aitchison.

Staff at the hotel gave him a warm welcome.  His first night turned into more than 75 nights.  At Christmas, the staff presented him with a coupon for a free Christmas dinner in the hotel dining room and several smaller gifts. “You don’t realize what it means to get into a clean bed, and not be worried about insects crawling all over you. That is amazing to me.”

He recalled, “I came with nothing, just what I had on and a few dried clothes in a plastic bag. The hotel gave me a toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant and even an umbrella.”  

The next day, Aitchison went to a discount store to buy underwear, socks, mittens and a cap. He remembered, “I had to put the new clothes through the drier because I was still paranoid about bed bugs.”

So far, even though the hotel is giving him a lower room rate, he has paid more than $2,300, which he took from his savings. As of mid-January, his tab was well over $5,000.  His room costs $492.66 a week. He has no idea how he will pay, or why he should pay. After all, he had been paying $482 a month for years to live in the Gordon B. Isnor apartment– though it was almost uninhabitable. “I haven’t paid the last two months’ rent and I haven’t heard from them,” he said. 

The Gordon B. Isnor Manor, like other seniors’ manors, is operated by the Metropolitan Regional Housing Authority. What was their response to Aitchison’s complaint about bedbugs? Aitchison explained, “First they came with a dog, then they used spray, then heat treatment –nothing was working:  they replaced my bed, my chair and the bedbugs were still there.”

About a week into his stay at the hotel, he had a panic attack at the breakfast table. “They called an ambulance, and when I was being released they [hotel staff] came to pick me up, in a car. They sent a taxi!  The idea that one day I’d have to return to my apartment was terrible.” Aitchison went back to the hotel. “They are nice to me there. But I can’t live there forever.”

This wasn’t the first time Aitchison had had a panic attack due to the bedbug infestation.  Several years ago he said I was ashamed to tell too many about the bedbugs. I was constantly feeling anxiety and on the edge.”  He said, “I did bring a bedbug to emergency. They sent me home with my clothes in a plastic bag; I had hospital boots on. The doctor said they had to quarantine the room when they saw a bedbug crawling along.”

His recent panic attack signaled to some of the hospital staff that he could not move back into his apartment. Aitchison wants to live at Northwood. “I’m at the bottom of the list—I have to wait a year or so.  But I can’t go back to my apartment. I was just so fed up. I’m almost homeless.”  

Six years ago, when he turned 65, Aitchison applied to live at Northwood, but because he had an apartment at Gordon B. Isnor he was denied a place on the waitlist. 

Lately, from time to time Aitchison has returned to Gordon B. Isnor Manor to pick up his mail. He said that when Metro Housing found out where he was living, they phoned him at the hotel and asked to meet him in the boardroom at Sunrise Manor. Two staff confronted Aitchison and urged him not to complain publicly about the bedbug infestation, because it could make it hard for him to find another apartment, he said. 

When this writer tried to contact a community relations worker at Metro Housing, I was directed to email a provincial communications advisor who sent this boilerplate response: 

“Every Nova Scotian deserves a safe and affordable place to live. We take all complaints and concerns raised by tenants seriously and work with them towards a resolution. However, due to privacy reasons, we can not speak about specific cases. “

No one knows where Aitchison will live or who will foot the bill for his hotel stay. What is known is that the government seems to have a blindspot when it comes to making life better for less wealthy Nova Scotians. 

Halifax intends to spend $20 million for a CFL stadium which a tiny fraction of the affluent (male) population will visit. And year after year the Department of Community Services fails to spend its entire budget and posts surpluses

Yet there is no money to eradicate vermin from the city’s seniors’ manors  

A society will be judged by how it treats its weakest members. Surely the elderly, and others whose only option is to live in public housing deserve better. 

Judy Haiven is on the steering committee of Equity Watch, an organization that fights discrimination, bullying and racism in the workplace.  Contact her at equitywatchns@gmail.com

Correction, February 5, 2020: We incorrectly referred to the operator of the Gordon B. Isnor operator as Metro Non-profit Housing, rather than the Metropolitan Regional Housing Authority. We should have caught that.

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  1. No human being living in the city of Halifax, especially the elderly should be living in these conditions as they are at the Gordon B. Isnor. The government should be ashamed of themselves. And to think they want to spend 20,000,000 to watch a male run around with a ball is unfathomable!!!

    1. Number ONE priory should be to eradicate those DAM BEDBUGS. I understand the cost is extremely expensive BUT the lives of people who should be able to live and sleep in their homes without the stress of infestation is more important than a stadium. The money can be used to keep people(adults and children) physically and mentally clean and free of stress from bedbugs!

  2. Very sad. The apartment building would have to be done at the same time not at once but from top to bottom, or to my understanding they can just keep moving from apartment to apartment.

  3. Nice to see Gary’s picture. Haven’t seen him for years. What an absolute tradegy for anyone to have to live through. I know people who have had to deal with this and I’ve heard the same comments Gary makes. No need of it in this day and age. Definitely a health risk, never mind the mental health issues. Bedbugs are everywhere & so gross to even think about. Only thing worse is cockroaches .

  4. I find this outrageous… no one should have to live in these conditions. Being infested with bedbugs or any pest is a traumatic experience to say the least! I hope Mr. Aitchison stays strong and positive, and finds a decent, affordable place to move to… free of pests. This story needs to be heard…

  5. The government and its various departments has its priorities in the wrong place. How dare they even consider a stadium when out seniors and less fortunate are at the point of suicidal thoughts from the anxiety of the bedbugs. Once and for all they need to do the right thing for the seniors and the marginalized.
    How can they even sleep at night knowing they are misspending our tax dollars on frivolity instead of necessity.

  6. Our government should be severely ashamed to allow a senior to live like this!I am so angry over this 😡😡😡.I cannot type ,I am so upset.😢😢😢😢😢

    1. I have a friend in Toronto that has been going through this since Sept. Bedbugs are supposedly gone but also plagued with some kid of mites and Pharaoh ants. She has severe health problems and these things have been chewing up her body. She has been in hospital now for a week and when and if they release her this is what she she has to look forward to!!! I feel sick every time I think of my friend in this impossible situation!!!!
      Doug Ford this is on your head, start taking care of buisness

  7. Nice to see a picture of Gary.Have not seen him since 1968. Sorry to hear about his living conditions…sure hope something gets done about the situation .

  8. So very sad to hear this is happening to my ppl in Nova Scotia. I sure hope & pray they help these ppl.bugs biting you is very dangerous .

  9. I thought bedbugs thrived in the heat and it was the cold that killed them, like putting the bagged items in a freezer for a time. Either way no one should have to live in those conditions. Unacceptable!

  10. Such a sad story! Nova Scotians are deserving of better treatment….as a matter all people are entitled to a safe, clean and affordable place to live!

  11. Maybe Stephen MacNeil and his minions should spend a nite or so in this poor gentleman’s apartment. Like it would ever happen!!!!! 🤯🤯

  12. iv been through the same situation as this poor guy except i managed to contain the bugs for now ,the government needs to step up or face losing their political positions

  13. Shame on the NS government. The fact is, this is going on in the majority of senior housing. Yes, this is a fact. It is either covered up, or seniors are too embarrased and intimidated to complain to housing. Those that do, are told to keep it quiet. Question is, what are we going to do about it?

  14. Public housing should be healthy and safe for its residents. How can we subsidize our recreation centers? They should be self-sufficient. Why should I have to subsidize a facility I can’t afford to use? When I was employed by the health care system I was not able to afford a membership or the cost of classes now I,m a senior, I can walk on the track for free on Monday, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Members must have a very high income and transportation.
    These unhealthy buildings should be destroyed. They have proven to be incurable. If China can build a thousand bed hospital in two weeks, we can create essential housing for low income citizens in a reasonable length of time. China is known for its human rights abuses. What can be more abusive than housing people in buildings infested with bedbugs, cockroaches, mice and rats and probably other creatures too?
    Gary needs something immediate. His friend left him a small amount of money, which he has been forced to use temporarily to put a roof over his head. Where can go? If anyone knows a place where Gary can live, contact him immediately!

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