Submitted by Meghan Simons
Pointillism is a painting technique used most famously by the artist Georges Seurat to create paintings via the careful application of tiny dots of pure color to the canvas. Up close, the picture appears to be nothing but small spots here and there. Done successfully, once the viewer backs away, their eyes blend it into a complete masterpiece and the full story is revealed.
This is not a masterpiece, nor a success story. While tempting to view in small sections, Denise Cook’s story is one of systemic failure and dehumanizing poverty. The full picture painted is banal bureaucratic failure at best, and willful blindness at worst. But for her posting it to the right place, she would be living in uninhabitable conditions which must surely violate municipal code and state law.
At 5:03 a.m. on May 21, 2020, Cook submitted a post to Reno/Sparks Mutual Aid, a Facebook group run by myself and a team of Reno and Sparks residents. She wrote she was dealing with a severe bed bug infestation and her apartment manager had treated the apartment several times but was refusing to again. Cook, who’d previously battled cancer, said, “I am disabled, have COPD, have no income to pay for treatment… Bugs are crawling over me all the time and I am bitten/fed upon constantly…” Accompanying the post was a video of dozens upon dozens of visible bed bugs crawling all over every surface.
Group members were horrified, and by 6:15 a.m., Reno City Councilman Devon Reese reached out to Cook. Upon finding out she lived in Sparks, Reese personally elevated it to the city manager and several elected officials who confirmed to him they were on it. I checked with him later in the day, and he said he spoke with Sparks City Councilman Donald Abbott, who talked with Denise a few months back and said he had some ideas.
Within a whirlwind 24 hours, Farrah Eells of Ground Game Government Affairs LLC, Abbott, Reno/Sparks Mutual Aid, and Reese coordinated a plan which included fundraising, securing a place for her to live while her unit was gutted and rebuilt and the surrounding units were treated. Abbott’s Ward 1 opponent, Wendy Stolyarov, rushed to where Cook was staying with bedding and has continued to check in with Cook, bringing her groceries, purchasing a cat carrier, and spending time with her. Group member Barbara Park started coordinating volunteer efforts.
Within 72 hours, a team of volunteers was assembled to collect what could be saved, bring her food, and assist with cleaning, demolition, and moving. Stolyarov stood side by side with Abbott as they helped Cook sort through what she could designate for treatment and try to save. Cook’s property manager was on board almost immediately after meeting with Eells. Abbott secured a medical bed for Cook.
But again, to view the whole picture, it is important to step back. The post to Reno/Sparks Mutual Aid was far from the first time Cook reached out for help. She had been pleading for help via phone calls, emails, and social media networking since at least the summer of 2017.
Between October 2018 and July 2019, Cook said she had emailed Abbott at least twice, Sparks City Manager Steve Driscoll, then-Sparks Mayor Geno Martini, Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve, Washoe Legal Services, Northern Nevada Center for Independent Living, the State of Nevada Real Estate Division, the Reno Housing Authority, her property manager at Nevada Commercial Services, the Nevada Disability Advocacy and Law Center, Joe Hart at KRNV News 4, the Nevada Secretary of State’s office, Social Services, Abby Badolato at Human Services, then-Governor Brian Sandoval, and Sparks Mayor Ron Smith. Multiple agencies referred her to Washoe Legal Services, which is unable to help Section 8 residents, or Washoe County Senior Services, ignoring Cook’s mention that she was in her fifties and therefore ineligible for senior services.
Cook said she previously emailed Abbott, Martini, Driscoll, the Reno Housing Authority, and others on October 30, 2018. She wrote, “Last summer, several apartments in the building had bed bugs… The manager told the tenants whose apts [sic] were being sprayed to bag up their bedding and put it outside. So they put their infested bedding in bags outside my neighbor’s and my apartments…the bugs found their way [in].”
Cook explained she had told her manager the bed bugs were still present and she was covered in bites. Abbott, Martini, and Driscoll did not respond. The Reno Housing Authority sent her an automated list of vacancies to which Cook replied she was seeking not to move, but for help and to make a complaint. She received no response.
On July 12, 2019, Cook sent another email blast to multiple agencies and individuals, including Abbott, Smith, and Schieve – whose office forwarded to Reno Direct – ending it with an all-caps plea: “PLEASE HELP ME.” Abbott wrote back the same day and said, “I’m saddened to hear you are having issues with where you are staying at.” He suggested Cook contact Washoe Legal Services or Washoe County Senior Services. Reno Direct suggested the same. Smith did not respond.
A Ward 1 resident who wishes to remain anonymous for fear of retribution shared she had also reached out to Abbott after seeing Cook’s posts on Nextdoor in 2019, and mentioned it was a shame people seeking help on the service didn’t seem to be getting help.
“He asked if I was referring to ‘the lady with bedbugs’ and I said I was speaking more generally,” she said. According to her, Abbott replied, “I’m not touching that one.”
Later that year, Abbott did assist Cook when she reported a troublesome parking issue on Nextdoor.
Life without a safety net
“I’m not touching that one” is the common refrain with Cook’s situation. The safety net in place to catch our most vulnerable utterly failed her, and certainly countless others. For three years, Cook was bitten over and over by bedbugs as she called and emailed to no avail. Her caregiver quit and her Medicaid-provided service did nothing but say she couldn’t receive another until the bugs were gone. Day in and day out, she emailed, called, and posted to no avail.
Cook apologized to me recently when she asked for a pint of ice cream. Simple requests she makes are tinged with an expectation of a no. She often says, “Not trying to be a bother, but…” When I brought two sets of silverware, she said she only really needed one.
Barbara Park has spent hours with Cook, becoming fast friends and helping her with cleaning and self-care. She said Cook was hesitant to ask for buns for pulled pork sandwiches, worried it might be asking too much. As Park said on the phone Monday, “She’s my neighbor, and you protect your neighbor. This is happening where I live and it’s unacceptable.”
Park is right. It is wholly unacceptable and unconscionable Cook was forced to live in such a manner due to bureaucratic inaction and incompetence. To ask to be comfortable, to have basic needs fulfilled, cruelly feels like asking too much. After years of no one coming to her aid, she is terrified of bothering us.
And stepping back to see each dot, each failed attempt to reach out, each unanswered message dotting the canvas of the past several years, paints a horrific picture which should absolutely bother us. It’s our choice to repaint or turn away.
Meghan Simons lives in Reno and is a professional specializing in the treatment of substance use disorders. Previously, she worked for political candidates as a communications consultant and field operative. She is a single mom of twins and has written on politics for over a decade. In her free time, she enjoys spending time with her kids, wandering Reno, and hiking on Mt. Rose from a respective social distance. Any opinions expressed here are her own and are not to be taken as those of any employers, groups, or professional boards with whom she is affiliated.
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