TAMPA — Nearly three dozen veterans staying at a north Tampa homeless shelter have been temporarily moved to other facilities because of a bedbug infestation, according to the shelter and Department of Veterans Affairs officials.
The outbreak was discovered May 9, according to Ed Drohan, a spokesman for the James A. Haley VA Medical Center, which has a contract with the New Beginnings of Tampa charity to house 33 veterans at 1402 E Chilkoot Ave.
Hospital staff worked with New Beginnings to relocate all the veterans who wanted other local accommodations, Drohan said. A few have elected to stay at the shelter. Relocated residents' clothing and other possessions were treated to prevent pests from being transferred to the other facilities.
The veterans who were moved should start returning Wednesday, according to Tom Atchison, founder and chief executive of New Beginnings.
The decision to move the veterans was made by Haley leadership as soon as they became aware of the scope of the problem, Drohan said.
"Our primary concern in this instance was ensuring the health and well-being of the veterans," he said.
Atchison said this was the first bedbug infestation in the shelter in more than 20 years of helping the homeless, including the last 10 years helping homeless veterans.
Drohan said the infestation seems to be unusual.
"This appears to be a fairly rare occurrence," he said, adding that Haley's social work team doesn't recall that ever happening at New Beginnings before.
Atchison said bedbugs are a constant concern.
"It's not a matter of getting rid of them completely, but keeping it under control," he said. "Veterans coming in off the street bring new ones. This is an ongoing battle all of the time."
The shelter, which houses a total of about 125 homeless people, has had its share of high-profile issues in recent years.
In 2014, Aramark and the Tampa Bay Rays concessions company Centerplate ended their relationships with New Beginnings after a series of Tampa Bay Times stories about the charity's controversial "work therapy" program, which required its homeless residents to work for their shelter and food.
Some of the residents were working concessions at Raymond James Stadium and Tropicana Field but were not getting paid. They eventually went back to work at sporting events, but only after the charity agreed the residents should receive pay rather than New Beginnings, which was getting donations for their labor from the concessions companies.
In the bedbug incident, the shelter contacted an extermination company, which emptied the building for 48 hours to apply pesticide.
The shelter also has put new protocols in place for dealing with homeless veterans, Atchison said.
Before the outbreak, veterans coming in were given a bed and their clothes were washed the next day, he said.
"Now we make them go into a room and all their clothes go into a washing machine," Atchison said. "All it takes is someone coming in with a couple of bedbugs and then you have them."
Contact Howard Altman at [email protected] or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.