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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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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