At first, Misosotis Mancebo didn’t know why she and her son and daughter were getting little red bumps covering their body.
Then she noticed small black bugs in the beds that she and her children slept in at the Chapman Partnership, the center that provides housing, meals, medical services and job training to Miami’s homeless.
“They were everywhere,” she said.
Mancebo moved out of the shelter, but shared her concerns about its cleanliness so that other mothers don't have to go through something similar.
“As a mother, I feel sad,” she said. “You don’t want to see your children suffer.”
Led by Miami Workers Center, several residents and former residents of the homeless shelter at 1550 N. Miami Ave., including Mancebo, spoke out about the bug problem and other concerns about housing.
Shelter officials said that while there has been an ongoing bed bug problem, the shelter — founded 20 years ago by the former Knight Ridder Chairman and CEO Alvah Chapman Jr., who died in 2008, has already begun a $250,000 renovation project that includes replacing all of the bedding and stripping the rooms clean.
“We are taking a holistic approach to eradicating the problem,” said the shelter’s marketing director Alec Rosen. “This is something we have had in the works for a while.”
On Thursday, workers assembled metal-framed beds to replace the more than 10-year-old wooden beds, which allowed bugs to burrow. All of the shelter’s 500 beds will be replaced, Rosen said.
The project, being paid for out of the shelter’s capital improvement budget, is expected to be completed by the end of January. Not only are the beds being replaced, the floors are being stripped, the walls are being repainted and the mattresses are being replaced with bug-proof ones.
Zulie Josil, who is living in a family room with her husband and two young children, said she has already noticed a difference since their room was redone last week.
“It’s cleaner and the bed is more comfortable,” said Josil as her 4-year-old daughter Zindaya Bell stood by her side.
Holly Woodbury, the shelter’s vice president of development, said having a bed bug problem is not uncommon in shelters. The shelter does, however, have a plan in place to help minimize the infestation.
When a person enters the shelter — in its 20-year history the shelter has taken in nearly 104,000 people — their clothes are disinfected and they are told to take a shower. They are also seen at the in-house clinic. The shelter has also purchased a tent-like contraption that kills bugs, and it fumigates bi-weekly.
“We realize we can’t get everything, but we try,” Woodbury said.
Marcia Olivo, the director of the Workers Center, said the bed bugs are only a small part of the group’s concerns. She said she is hoping by bringing attention to one problem, the county will come up with a better plan to help those who can’t afford housing in Miami. She said Chapman, which provides temporary housing and job training to help people get back on their feet, needs to have a better plan to help people be successful.
“We need to do a better job of serving our homeless population,” she said.
But despite challenges, Rosen said the shelter has made significant strides in reducing the number of homeless people in South Florida since the shelter’s inception. The shelter has a 64 percent success rate in placing its residents in transitional or permanent housing.
“Our mission is to empower the homeless to lead independent lives through wraparound services including case management, healthcare, job training and child services,” he said. “The health and safety of our residents are of paramount importance and we remain focused on our mission even while dealing with issues such as these.”