Bed bugs in transitional housing and shelters

Proper management will keep bed bugs out of shelters. No need to turn people away!

The presence of bed bugs in homeless shelters is an increasingly common problem. The transient lifestyle of the homeless population makes them particularly vulnerable to bed bugs. They may be exposed to the insects in emergency shelters, transitional housing, motels and hotels, homes of friends, as well as other places they may spend the night. After being exposed, they can inadvertently move bed bugs from place to place, including into homeless shelters.

In order to reduce the risk of a bed bug infestation, homeless shelters and other emergency housing facilities should incorporate bed bug screening into intake and assessment procedures, as clients may bring bed bugs from their previous living arrangements. Clients can be asked about whether they’ve been exposed to bed bugs while they’re being questioned about other public health pests such as lice, scabies and whether they have cockroach allergies or asthma. In some cases bites will be evident, but the client may not know or be concerned that they have been exposed to bed bugs.

When interviewing clients, questions should be phrased compassionately, as this may be the first experience a person has with bed bugs. Some suggested questions include:

  • “Have you stayed in a place where you think you may have been exposed to bed bugs in the past three months?”
  • “Has anyone in your family been bitten by bed bugs or do they have bites or blisters that you’re concerned about?”
  • “Bed bugs, lice, scabies and other things can cause medical concerns. Do you need help with a bed bug, or any other pest, issue?”

If a client indicates that they believe they have been exposed to bed bugs or they know they have bed bugs, immediate attention will be necessary to avoid spreading them within the shelter or home. Provide information to the individual or family about bed bugs and their management and prevention. Contact your local health department or the Michigan Department of Community Health (MDCH) for information to provide to clients. The following Michigan State University Extension bed bug articles may also be helpful: Bed bugs return to Michigan, Identifying bed bugs and Signs of bed bug infestation.

It is important to never refuse shelter to clients with symptoms of bed bug infestations. Once a client has showered and changed into clean clothes, there will no longer be bed bugs on the person. To deal with client belongings, incorporate a Bed Bug Treatment Agreement into the shelter’s rules. The MDCH publication, Michigan Manual for the Prevention and Control of Bed Bugs contains a sample Bed Bug Treatment Agreement in appendix B.

Shelters should develop policies and protocols for bed bugs, such as inspecting belongings, laundering or medical attention. It would be appropriate to review shelter procedures regarding bed bugs with the client and hold the resident responsible by having all parties sign the agreement. It is crucial to have the cooperation of both the shelter staff and the resident in order to most effectively avoid and/or eliminate a bed bug infestation.

Cornell University has developed Guidelines for Prevention and Management of Bed Bugs in Shelters and Group Living Facilities that may also be of help to transitional housing and shelters.

MSU Extension has partnered with the MDCH to address the bed bug issue. For information on how to prevent or treat bed bug infestations, visit the MDCH website at

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