Good Shepherd project tackles bed bugs, homelessness

  • February 17, 2011
Bed bugsTORONTO - Aaron Lewis loves to see the smile on the faces of people when he’s done steaming and vacuuming their apartments. He knows that what he does helps people sleep a little easier.

“We make their life a bit more joyful,” he said.

Lewis forms part of a Good Shepherd CARES crew that prepares apartments for pesticide treatments that eliminate bed bugs and cockroaches. Without the intense and detailed cleaning they provide — steaming, vacuuming, overturning tables, chairs and beds and sealing up openings around phone jacks, cable and electrical outlets, laundering all the clothes and sheets, etc. — the mere application of chemicals won’t eliminate the pests.

Getting all that cleaning done for somebody who can’t do it by themselves makes Lewis feel proud and satisfied with a job well done.

For workers like Lewis, that sense of satisfaction is a big step forward — and half the reason Good Shepherd CARES exists. Everyone who works for Good Shepherd CARES has been homeless. Many have struggled with addictions. A chance to work, to learn new skills and to be part of a team is a mostly new experience for them.

After months of planning, Good Shepherd CARES began tackling Toronto’s bed bug problem in subsidized housing units downtown in mid-January. The social enterprise’s goals are less about making money than they are about providing a needed service to the community and new opportunities to the people who have come to rely on The Good Shepherd.

Over the years Good Shepherd Ministries has been pretty successful finding housing for the homeless, but finding jobs has always been a challenge, said assistant executive director Aklilu Wendaferew.

“If you’re 45 or 50 years old and haven’t worked for 10 years, what’s the chances you’re going to get a job? Pretty low,” Wendaferew said.

The Little Brothers of the Good Shepherd operation in Hamilton has been running a bed bug spray preparation business for two years. The City of Toronto’s Seaton House has “Bug and Scrub” teams. Wendaferew saw opportunity waiting in Toronto’s bed bug problem.

“This is a good niche for a social enterprise. The market is not saturated,” he said.

Advertising the service as “Bed bug solutions with a social conscience,” the Good Shepherd CARES ethos is embedded in the name. In this case, CARES stands for Compassion, Acceptance, Respect, Experience and Skills.

Good Shepherd CARES partners with commercial pesticide companies that do the actual spraying. The Good Shepherd CARES crews take care of preparation for spraying, then put everything back where it was after the spraying.

Toronto Public Health Healthy Environments program manager Reg Ayre is happy to see another player in the extreme clean service market, especially a social enterprise.

“It’s a win-win,” he said.

Giving the formerly homeless job skills, the social skills that go with work and pride in what they do means the $400 to $600 it costs to clean an apartment is money well spent, said Ayre.

“That’s cheap,” is his reaction to the Good Shepherd price.

Good Shepherd CARES represents a very different approach to work, said program manager Rolando Aguilar. Aguilar is an electrician and project manager who used to manage housing maintenance for large foreign worker compounds in Saudi Arabia. He knows all about the competitive world of private enterprise where there are no excuses and employers pay for performance.

As he assembles and trains crews for Good Shepherd CARES, Aguilar is teaching a work ethic, responsibility and interpersonal relationships.

“The rhythm of the working lifestyle is still not there yet,” he said.

But in a few short weeks, Aguilar has seen improvements.

Aguilar and his lead hands make sure each job is completed to professional standards.

“We’re as professional as anyone can be,” said Wendaferew. “We’re not sending a crew that’s not capable of doing the job. They’re as good as any of the private enterprises out there.”

“We can beat the bed bugs,” said crew-member Fern Defoi.

Bed bug facts

o Bed bugs (cimex lectularius) can be hard to find — they like the dark and hidden places in your home — but they are big enough to see.

o While the poor are vulnerable, there are bed bugs in hotels, condos, private homes, offices and other places. Anyone can get bed bugs.

o While bed bugs do not transmit disease, they bite. They live off the blood of warm-blooded mammals. Some people will have an allergic reaction to the bites, and the bites can be made worse with scratching, picking and scabs. There is also a psychological impact. People who find themselves living with bed bugs will feel anxious, worried or ashamed.

o You can’t just spray and call it a day. Without the complete removal and laundering of clothes, steam cleaning, vacuuming, sealing gaps around electrical, phone and cable outlets they will come back. Over-the-counter pesticides and kerosine are not effective.

o Bed bug inquiries to Toronto Public Health are on the rise. In 2005, there were 197 inquiries, in 2010 there were more than 2,000.

Source: Toronto Public Health.

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