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Homeless Men in Wicker Park Brave Cold, Refuse to Risk Bedbugs in Shelters

By Alisa Hauser | January 3, 2014 8:39am
 Kevin Govert (l.) and Marcus Faletti don't have a roof over their heads but say they are getting by in the snowy weather. But they could use more blankets and coats, they said.
Kevin Govert (l.) and Marcus Faletti don't have a roof over their heads but say they are getting by in the snowy weather. But they could use more blankets and coats, they said.
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DNAinfo/Alisa Hauser

WICKER PARK — Two homeless men who are familiar faces near Wicker Park's Milwaukee, Damen and North avenues intersection say they'd rather sleep outside in the freezing cold than risk going to an overnight shelter that's infested with bedbugs.

On Thursday afternoon, Kevin Govert, 46, and Marcus Faletti, 54, were huddled in a doorway when they recounted their night before.

Govert, who sleeps near a building that's being converted into a fitness club, said he awoke to construction workers putting a plastic tarp over him to keep moisture off his "frozen sleeping bag," while, Faletti, who sleeps near an area school, used "a bunch of comforters."

"I had to brush snow off [myself]," Faletti said, adding, "Ain't been light, ain't stopped snowing."

Though Govert had an offer for an overnight stay with someone he met through a church, he said the offer "fell through."

While he could sleep at an overnight shelter on the near West side run by the Franciscan Outreach Association, a nonprofit that also operates a daytime shelter and soup kitchen in Wicker Park, Govert said he "does not want to get bedbugs again."

Reached by phone, Josh Dargatz, a worker at Franciscan House, a 257-bed shelter at 2715 W. Harrison St., admitted that bed bugs are "a 10 to 20 percent problem, but it's not like every bed of the 257 is infested."

"We are experimenting with different sprays," Dargatz said, adding that, "a good 5 to 10 percent of people would rather be on the street than have a bad night where bedbugs completely overwhelmed them."

Located in a converted warehouse that was once a mop factory, Franciscan House has, in the last 15 days, averaged 10 or more openings per night for men, while spaces for single women are filled, Dargatz said.

Blogger Emily Eubanks, who volunteered at the Franciscan House shelter in 2012, wrote that "Sleep tight, don't let the bedbugs bite" took on a new meaning after she spent time at the shelter, where one homeless woman left at 1 a.m. because she had gotten bitten so many times.

Though Franciscan House has open beds, the Cornerstone shelter in Uptown, which has 350 beds, is "at capacity" and seeing a 25 percent spike due to the cold weather, said Jeremy Nicholls, a worker at the shelter.

"We are turning away more people," Nicholls said, adding that that as the weather gets colder, homeless people will ride CTA trains all night to stay warm.

Bedbugs have been a problem at Cornerstone, too, Nicholls said.

"We are constantly fighting against them. It's a hard battle, but we've got it down right now," Nicholls said.

Though Cornerstone sprays mattresses, has an exterminator come in regularly and provides guests with laundry cards for a local laundromat, Nicholls said that there are "some people who won't come [to the shelter] because of bedbugs, for sure." 

"Some people are allergic and will break out in hives, some won't notice, and others will get a rash," Nicholls said.  

Bedbugs have not been a problem at Pacific Garden Mission, a shelter at 1458 S. Canal St. in the South Loop which is the city's largest, with 540 beds for men and 150 for women.

Henry Walker, a worker at Pacific Garden Mission, said that an average of 100 more people per night seek shelter in the colder months. While the shelter is now full, it's "trying to serve as many people as possible," Walker said.

To help prevent bedbugs, Walker said all shelter guests must take their clothes off and put them in a "hot box" — a heated room designed to kill the bugs and their eggs — as well as shower before entering the dormitory, where they sleep in hospital gowns.

Dargatz said some homeless people have told him they prefer to stay at Franciscan House because it's "less strict" than Pacific Mission and "you can keep your clothes with you."

For people looking for a warm place to stay during the day, the city offers several warming centers.