Hamilton’s bed bug problem is nearing an epidemic, and the city is spending nearly half a million dollars to try to deal with it.

The city has seen a 600-per cent increase in bed bugs since 2006. City hall fields about 600 calls per year about them, and that’s not including homeowners or people who don’t report it.

On Monday, the city’s public works committee voted to use $350,000 allocated last year to combat bed bugs, and another $100,000 on a “navigator” to help guide low-income and vulnerable populations through the arduous process of getting rid of them.

“We’re looking at an epidemic in the future if we don’t address this matter,” said Coun. Sam Merulla of Ward 4. Merulla also successfully moved that the city approach the provincial and federal governments to establish a national prevention strategy.

Bed bugs are a highly noxious insect commonly found in apartment buildings. They feed on blood, and can survive months without a meal, said Susan Harding-Cruz, manager of the vector borne disease program at Hamilton Public Health Services.

They crawl into any opening, including through drains and light fixtures, said Harding-Cruz and Kirsten Maxwell, policy and program specialist with city housing services in a presentation. They are skilled at hiding.

Throughout the night, they bite people in their beds, causing sleep deprivation and long-term anxiety. Those who have them suffer social stigma, which means shame and isolation, Harding-Cruz said.

In a letter read by Maxwell, one victim said she felt like she was losing her mind from the ordeal.

Can cost thousands to eradicate them

Getting rid of them requires using plastic to seal clothes, mattresses and other possessions for two weeks while exterminators spray. Even preparing to process costs as much as $2,000 per apartment. Bed bugs are also becoming immune to the spray, Maxwell said. And some apartments are reinfected multiple times.

CityHousing Hamilton, which owns the city’s public housing stock, will spend a whopping $1 million to fight infestations in 2014.

Of the money allocated last year, $150,000 will be spent treating the issue in residential care facilities. Another $100,000 will pay for staff to develop a bed bug strategy. Also, $100,000 will support vulnerable populations in preparing for treatment, as well as education and resources.

Councillors voted Monday to spend $100,000 to hire a “navigator” to help guide low-income and vulnerable populations through the complex process of riding their homes of bed bugs.

Bed bugs are a terrible problem, said Coun. Tom Jackson of Ward 6. He told the story of an elderly widow in his ward who has lived in her home for more than 50 years.

Battling the landlord on bed bugs

She got a sudden case of bed bugs, and she was unable to afford the $900 to spray her home, or do the physical work to isolate her belongings. Her church friends also refused to come to her house, Jackson said.

Shawn Comer lives at 165 Queen St. S. and appeared before committee for a second time about the cockroaches and bed bugs in his apartment. He cares for his elderly mother, who has Alzheimer’s disease. Bed bugs crawl on her at night too, he said.

When he looked at his apartment, he said, “I was promised it was clean and pest free and it wasn’t.” But being on social assistance, he can’t afford higher rent.

He wants to see an inspection system or new element of bylaw enforcement in place where landlords can’t rent apartments unless they’re proven to be free of bed bugs.

“This has gone on too long and it needs to be dealt with,” he said.