The following blog has been written by Emma Voigt, Hopeprint Home resident who also serves as an AmeriCorps VISTA in our neighborhood at Northside Urban Partnerships.
I did not want to understand this. The purpose of AmeriCorps VISTA is to provide fulltime staff members to non-profit organizations. Furthermore, VISTAs are supposed to live at the poverty level in order to gain a better understanding of the community they serve. I had always been frugal and good at budgeting, so I smugly assumed I could single handedly conquer the personal difficulties of poverty. Sure, I would not be getting new shoes for a while, but I would survive.
No one prepared me for this. During the AmeriCorps pre-service orientation we talked about various kinds of poverty. We talked about all the different expenses that were inevitable parts of life. We talked about the luxuries that were really necessary for improving socioeconomic status. We even talked about the troubles of medical care. However, we did not talk about the seemingly minute things that can derail plans in a heartbeat. We did not talk about the ugly dirty things that hide.
There was little I could do about this. Bleary eyed, I rolled out of bed and started my morning work out routine. After a few sit-ups, I noticed a speck of dirt on my bed spread. It seemed odd. Each time I did a sit up the dirt seemed to be in a different location. I paused and noticed that the dirt was indeed moving. It seemed I should get more sleep. Then I moved closer, and saw my worst fear. It was roughly the size of an apple seed, flat, slightly oval shaped, and a distinct reddish brown color that seemed to announce it was full of my blood.
This was a bed bug. A year ago I would have screamed bloody murder and, run from the house in my pajamas never to be seen or heard of again. This was pure evil. However, something must have changed in me because I remembered throwing a plastic bag away the day before; I grabbed it off the top of my trashcan, captured my new roommate, and securely zipped the bag. Next step—straight for the vacuum. I left the little demon in the hall, still harboring a hint of denial and hoping my roommate would confirm this was something harmless.
I was wrong about this. It was indeed the dreaded nuisance, and we had to address it immediately. Suddenly, every sock became a burden. As a former fashion design major, I loved clothes and collected them. The designs I had been most proud of became the biggest problems. I knew I should not dry a wool skirt. Hopefully, it’s still acceptable for me to wear a mini skirt. I soon learned that driers and snow boots do not get along either. Alas, I would be buying new shoes this year.
This problem kept escalating. I knew from the beginning an exterminator was out of the question. However, the costs kept adding up. Before I knew it, we were nearly out of garbage bags. I’d also need some chemicals to kill the buggers, a cover for my box spring, and a bed frame. Luckily, my roommate never hesitated to help. My thoughts kept turning to the many unlucky people who had bed bugs, but did not have such helpful people in their lives.
I went through a series of “what ifs.” What if I had to walk to the Laundromat? I have never been so thrilled to have a drier at home. What if no one had bought the chemicals for me? What if I did not have a clean couch to sleep on? What if I could not work from home or call in to my job? I am sure this only scratches the surface of the way poverty multiplies every problem.
This took a psychological toll on me too. Every time I interact with people I feel I should give them a disclaimer like I am a carrying the plague or something. Then there is the incessant itching; not because I have been bit, but because I assume I have been. Perhaps the worst is the overwhelming feeling of helplessness. In order to eradicate these beings, I have to rely on the kindness of others. On top of that, there is plenty of evidence to show that drying clothes, and sprinkling chemicals will not destroy these pests. I wonder how long I can live with the threat. Furthermore, if I cannot kill bugs, how can I ever fulfill my many other responsibilities? How can I ever address the higher needs if I cannot take care of this base layer?
Researching this was a bad idea. I tried to find out how I could be sure I was rid of the visitors. In sifting through articles about how they feed, what they look like, and whether or not they carry disease (they don’t at this point), I found several describing their bites. What shocked me was the article I found about how to simply cover up their bites. I realized how lucky I was then. Anyone can get bed bugs, they thrive in all kinds of hotels, and I am a neat freak. Yet, those of us with means to educate ourselves can research the various means of treating them. Then, we can buy the necessary materials or reach out to our support system for help.
There are people who simply cover up their bites. The helplessness is so deep, so engrained, that they believe there is nothing they can do to eliminate the problem. Each day, they enter the world hiding layers of most uncomfortable secrets. Bed bugs are not the biggest problem I have had this year, but they are certainly the most disgusting. I knew living at poverty level meant I had to think up creative ways to deal with a lot of things. Yet, I never thought of hiding the problem. I now wonder if my inclination to treat problems from their root, to eliminate them once and for all, is a privilege. That being said, what other bites are we covering? How many people are forced to conceal rather than heal?