Once homeless, vets swelter in Detroit apartments with bed bugs

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Detroit — Residents of a 150-unit building that houses formerly homeless military veterans say they're suffering through a hot summer with inadequate air conditioning and, in some cases, bed bugs.

Building management acknowledges there are bugs in the air conditioning system, and says despite contracting with an exterminator, it's nearly impossible to stave off the tiny insects in such a sizable complex.

Veteran Gary Meadows holds a jar of "bed bugs", some still moving, which he says he has collected from his apartment at Piquette Square, a subsidized apartment building where formerly homeless veterans stay, in Detroit, Michigan on July 12, 2019.

Gary Meadows, a 65-year-old former U.S. Air Force medic, has a jarful of several bed bugs he says he plucked off his bed in Piquette Square in Detroit's New Center. The 106,000-square-foot subsidized apartment building is owned and managed by the nonprofit Southwest Solutions.

"I saved (the bugs) to show the building management how bad these problems are," said Meadows, who served in the Air Force from 1972-76. "I haven't been able to sleep because of all the bed bugs biting me, and because it's so hot; the air conditioning doesn't work, and people on the upper floors are sweltering."

Southwest Solutions director Tim Thorland said he's aware of the problems and insists they're being addressed. Part of the issue, he said, is that the property is serviced by a geothermal heating and cooling system, which is regulated by the Earth's temperature.

Thorland said the computer system that controls the system wasn't functioning properly. "We hired a company to rebuild that," he said. "That's been done."

But fixing the computer system only addressed part of the problem, Thorland said.

"The second piece of this is that we're dealing with a situation where we've had back-to-back mild winters, and back-to-back warm summers, which means that the ground temperature is not getting down to a level that this system operates most efficiently with," he said.

"So we have trouble cooling the building, because the fluid that fuels the system isn't getting cool enough," Thorland said. A "cooling tower," which will provide supplemental cooling to the building, is scheduled to be installed "in a few weeks," he said.

Tenants complain the air conditioning problem worsened a few months ago when management installed sensors that turn off apartments' air whenever the window is opened.

"The air seemed to be working OK until they put those sensors in," said Earl McGlory, who served in the Army from 1981-84, and has lived in the building for eight years. "Now, it's way too hot — and when you complain, they keep saying 'we're working on it.'"

Thorland said the sensors were installed because residents kept opening their windows while running the AC, "and that puts incredible stress on the system," he said.

Regarding the bed bug problem, Thorland said it's a recurring issue.

"We've operated this building since May 2010, and I would be hard-pressed to show any point where we didn't have a bed bug issue in the building, whether it was isolated to one unit, or a handful," he said. "I think that would be the case for most large apartment buildings in Metro Detroit.

"We have exterminators on contract, and when we're notified of a problem, we immediately put in a work order," Thorland said.

Meadows disputed that. "I kept waiting and waiting for them to spray, and I finally went out and spent $65 on my own spray," said Meadows, who said he pays $673 monthly rent. 

Another problem, residents say, is that the building's front door doesn't lock.

"We've got people who don't belong here coming into the building," Meadows said. "That's dangerous. We keep complaining about the door, but it hasn't been fixed."

Thorland said the door has been fixed numerous times — but, he said, it keeps getting broken.

"That door gets fixed routinely," he said. "We needed a better solution, so we hired a contractor to install a complete new front door system; a sliding door like you'd find in a grocery store."

The door keeps malfunctioning, Thorland said, because people overuse the button that automatically opens the door, granting access to the handicapped.

"I'm as guilty as anybody: Whether you're handicapped or not, it's convenient to just hit the button and let the door open for you," Thorland said. "But when you have 150 guys doing that regularly, the door just can't keep up with that abuse.

"I understand residents are concerned, and we're serious about limiting access to that property. This is a vulnerable population in some cases, and we want to provide a secure place for them to live.

"That door has become a problem, and we'll have a solution to it pretty soon."

Some residents say management has not responded to their complaints, while others dispute that.

Sharon Sykes, who served in the Air Force from 1980-84 said building managers "talk down to us" since she moved there three years ago.

Sharon Sykes, 60, a resident at Piquette Square speaks on her experiences at Piquette Square, a subsidized apartment building where formerly homeless veterans stay, in Detroit, Michigan on July 12, 2019.

"It almost has the feeling like we're the inmates, and they're the wardens," she said.

But Bill Carroll, a U.S. Navy sailor for 15 years and head of the Piquette residents' council, said management has quickly responded to complaints in the seven years he's lived in the building.

"When someone says they have bed bugs, they get right on it," he said. "You're going to get bed bugs in a building like this, but building management does what they can."

In response to claims that management hasn't responded to residents' concerns, Thorland said: "That's disappointing. We’ve taken steps necessary to communicate information to tenants. We've held meetings, provided written literature, one-on-one consultation, and we'll continue to do that.

"I agree this is not an optimal situation, but this is absolutely not a situation that's untenable, or that causes any harm to people," Thorland said. "It is a level of discomfort that's being corrected."


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Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN