Bill Vis lives at The Perkins Centre

Bill Vis hasn't seen bedbugs since the first time he had his apartment sprayed, but he still checks regularly to make sure no new ones come. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

When Bill Vis first found bed bugs in his bachelor apartment at The Perkins Centre a couple of years ago, he found it difficult to tell the property staff.

"Because I'm as clean as possible. And I says, 'Why me?'" he said. "I didn't like to tell them, but I had to tell them." 

But Vis knew he had to tell, to do his part in a novel approach to fighting bedbugs that local Christian social housing provider Indwell says is cutting its costs and eradicating pests from more than 200 units across six buildings. The organization says a no-shame policy, training and partnerships between staff and tenants is helping their buildings become 99 percent bed-bug-free. 

Property manager Jessica Brand recalled that first conversation with Vis.

"I remember talking with (him) There was a kind of fear, right?" she said, recalling the conversation with Vis. "Like (his)  face was kind of red. I sensed that there was some fear."

Now Vis is a go-to tenant who helps his neighbours search for the pests. He's on the front line, with Brand and the Indwell staff, in a battle against bed bugs that will sound familiar to scores of Hamilton landlords.

It was a major campaign issue in the recent Ward 3 election, and councillor-elect Matthew Green even brought up a repeal of a ban on DDT as an option to deal with the pests. The city voted in March to hire a policy analyst and a "navigator" on bed bug issues. In that presentation, staff said they expect CityHousing Hamilton will spend $1 million this year.

'The real story is in education and vigilant support and inspection.' - Jeff Neven,  executive director of Indwell

What's different about Indwell's experience: These landlords are smiling as they talk about bed bugs. On a recent check, one of Indwell's six buildings had zero infestations. So far in 2014, Indwell's 260 units are 99-percent bed-bug-free. They've tried lots of things: The microwave-like oven to zap bugs, a deep freeze, plastic moats around bed posts.

But the biggest key to the success, they say: Erasing that fear and stigma Vis experienced.

"The approach that chemicals are going to win the day is only part of the story," said Jeff Neven, the executive director of Indwel​l. "The real story is in education and vigilant support and inspection.”

Between 2011 and the end of August 2014, the company implemented a strategy that they say is working. The company is sharing its findings and approach in a report called "Pests Managed."  The Perkins Centre comprises affordable bachelor units for people who have disabilities, including mental disabilities. Across Indwell properties, tenants are trained and encouraged to perform regular checks and staff visit each unit to help look for bugs.

"That means when we catch bed bugs, we’re catching them at one to five bugs, rather than 10,000 bugs,” said Jeff Neven, the executive director of Indwell. “Once the tenants have the education themselves, they’re the ones coming to us and saying, ‘I found a bug.’” 

'A significant cluster'

Bill Vis lives at The Perkins Centre

Bill Vis, a tenant of The Perkins Centre, checks his mattress for bedbugs every two weeks. Tenants and staff at the apartment building try to find any wayward bugs before they start an infestation. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

Bed bugs became a real problem for Indwell in 2011.

"Rather than it being a one-off event, we started to see a significant cluster," Neven said. "One day, all the sudden, we realized 'Wow, we too are in on this.'"

That year, Indwell's cost per unit per month of dealing with bed bugs was $11.04, plus $3.82 to set up the prevention efforts.

But by this year, they're spending just $3.53 per unit per month on treatment and $2 per unit on prevention, according to Indwell's report.

It wasn't entirely a smooth road. Some staff worried about picking up bed bugs if they went in an infested unit. Between August and November 2011, five staff quit saying they "were unable to cope with the idea of working with bed bugs or fearful of bed bugs," according to the Indwell report.

But some overboard staff suggestions, like wanting to wear gowns and booties, gave the company a chance to "discuss the stigma that over identification of a unit or excessive protective equipment would create."

'We see our tenants as our strongest ally.' - Jeff Neven, Indwell

There’s too much secrecy around bed bugs, Neven said. Because of the secrecy, he’s not sure how what Indwell is doing, or spending, compares to other social housing providers. 

“It’s a bit difficult to know what other social housing providers are doing," he said. "We wanted to change that story and put out our statistics, and we think our experience and our method and our outcomes are worth sharing.”

The bed bug approach comes from the company’s values, which are “dignity, love and hope.” 

"We see our tenants as our strongest ally," Neven said. "If we can help empower our tenants to be part of the solution, it’s going to be more successful for all of us.”

But the staff involvement is key, too. Staff help tenants pack up their stuff for when the exterminators come to spray. They hold information sessions and do one-on-one trainings to help tenants screen for the bugs. 

Even with all of the staff time, Neven said the company is saving money this way. 

“It doesn’t take very long and it’s much easier to do a quick check than it is to prepare a unit and spray it," Neven said. "It’s a fraction of the cost.”

Indwell spends about $2 per month per unit on staffing for its bed bug program. Nursing students from McMaster have been a big part of the program.

"What we’re hearing is some of the other providers may be spending more than $12 per unit per month," Neven said. But for Indwell, "a dollar in prevention probably is saving about $10 per unit per month."

'No matter what you do, it's not your fault'

Tom Jackson is a Ward 6 councillor and a member of the CityHousing Hamilton board for the past eight years. 

Both Jackson and Ward 3 councillor-elect Green have been vocal about how bed bugs have impacted their residents. They were intrigued to hear about Indwell's findings. 

"I think we need to look at all the organizations taking the lead on this issue and see how their best practices can be applied sustainably throughout the city," Green said. "If someone out there has viable solutions, I'm listening and grateful we are finally having an honest discussion about the impacts on the people living with bed bugs."

Rob Zomer, one of Vis's fellow residents in The Perkins Centre, has only ever found one bedbug in his apartment. He put it in a Ziploc bag and brought it to show a staff member. Before he'd been trained, he probably "would've just killed it," he said.

But he's still absorbed the no-shame message. "No matter what you do, it's not your fault," he said.

And Zomer has the unit check down to a science.

"I lift all my mattresses up," he said. "I lift up the sheets and I check the creases. Every night and morning. I don't want bed bugs."