CASPER, Wyo. — Christopher Stratton lives on the second floor at the Star Apartments. There is no artwork on his walls. He has no furniture, no bed. He sleeps on a military blanket and pillow on the floor. Since moving in on March 7, he claims he hasn’t had a good night’s sleep.
Stratton’s apartment is infested with bed bugs. Squished bodies of those he’s killed stick to his walls. Festering open wounds cover his arms. The outlines of old bite marks are still visible on his neck.
“They’re hungry little buggers unfortunately,” he said, surveying the apartment. “Really, we didn’t want to bring anything in.”
Stratton has a girlfriend who lives at her grandparents' in Casper. She has two children. They don’t bring them by the apartment.
“It’s hard to live that way,” he said. “It’s not an environment that anyone should live in.”
The number of reported bed bug cases in Casper is rising, according to the Casper-Natrona County Health Department. As Stratton's case demonstrates, there is little the city can do about it.
Stratton reported his case to the Health Department after a visit to the emergency room Saturday. The department took his complaint and said it would be in touch with the apartment’s management. He was offered this recommendation: Leave the apartment and go to the Central Wyoming Rescue Mission, a homeless shelter.
A cook at McDonald's who pays $600 a month to live at the Star Apartments, Stratton was insulted.
“I have a job. Being told I should go to a homeless shelter,” he said, “I’d rather see the problem fixed.”
John Drinnon, environmental health division director for the Health Department, called Stratton’s case “pretty alarming,” but said there was not much his department could do.
The Health Department has the authority to direct motels and hotels to eradicate bed bugs on their premises, but lacks such authority over residential buildings, Drinnon said. Health officials do not regularly inspect apartment complexes, as they do motels and hotels. Wyoming does not have housing regulations, meaning health officials cannot deliver directives to landlords, he said.
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“We don’t have any authority to go into apartment complexes and issue citations because there are no citations to issue,” Drinnon said. “We wish we could do more for occupants, but again it takes an effort from both landlords and occupants” to get rid of bed bugs.
An exterminator needs to “bomb” each room in a building to effectively clear it of bed bugs, he said.
Bed bug reports have risen “significantly” in the past three years, though there are no official statistics for residential buildings, Drinnon said. Bed bugs are not considered reportable; as a result, they are not reported incidents and are not counted, state and local officials said.
The issue is one that needs to be addressed, Drinnon said. “It is a major nuisance in the community,” he said. “The time is probably right for housing regulations.”
Housing regulations are different from the building code, which covers structural issues. Common in other states, they outline health and safety standards, Drinnon said.
Stratton did not inform the Star Apartments of the infestation before going to the Health Department. He said he could not find the apartment’s manager, Lawrence Wayne Ridgeway, last week because he was in jail.
In an interview Thursday, Ridgeway said he did spend five days in jail last week. But he said no one in the apartment or from the city had informed him about an infestation of bed bugs in the building. He said he left clear instructions on his door to contact the apartment’s other employees in case a tenant needed something.
The apartments have had one reported case of bed bugs in the past, Ridgeway said. He “bombed the apartment” as well as the two adjoining units, he said. If a tenant came to him with a similar report, “we would take care of it,” he said.
Stratton holds out a sliver of hope that the issue will be resolved and he can stay at the apartments. But he is also looking for other housing options in Casper. That’s a challenging task. There were 91 open rental units out of 5,580 in Casper at the end of 2012, according to the Wyoming Community Development Authority.
Meanwhile, he’ll continue to sleep where he has.
"Where else do I have to go?" he said.