Inside hotels at the heart of Baton Rouge’s overdose crisis: ‘drug and illicit drug cesspools’ | News

First, Latoya Turner lost her home, then she lost her husband to pancreatic cancer.

Since then, Turner, 43, has juggled gigs at gas stations and fast food joints. She has lived occasionally at the FairBridge Inn Express hotel on Boardwalk Avenue since 2021.

With rooms at $40 to $44, that’s often all she can afford. But she wishes she could live somewhere – almost anywhere – somewhere else.

One room she stayed in at the FairBridge had no toilet, she said; just a hole in the ground. Turner, who has been sober for 23 years due to a heroin addiction, says the hotel and others nearby are “drug and illicit drug cesspools”, littered with used needles and other drug paraphernalia.

She lives at the epicenter of the East Baton Rouge Parish opioid epidemic.

In 2021, 311 people died of drug overdoses in the parish, according to the coroner’s office. This is an increase of almost 30% compared to 2020, the previous all-time high.

The heart of this killer wave is a four-mile strip of eight budget hotels along I-12. There have been 135 emergency medical services calls for overdoses at these hotels since the start of 2021, according to data from emergency medical services and law enforcement.

And those are just the overdoses; in some hotels, 911 is called hundreds of times a year for various criminal complaints.

Data tracked by the East Baton Rouge District Attorney shows that 10 of the parish’s 11 deadliest places for overdoses in the past two years are budget motels; the 11th is a hospital.

Five of the seven deadliest locations are hotels and motels along I-12 between Airline Highway and Central Throughway: Hotel FairBridge Inn Express, Woodspring Suites Extended Stay, OYO Hotel East, Siegal Select, and America’s Best Value Inn.

The five companies accounted for at least 25 fatal overdoses during that time, according to the district attorney’s office. The FairBridge Inn Express hotel, where Turner is staying, accounted for nine of those deaths, the most of any location in the parish.

“These hotels are convenient places for users and resellers because, A, rooms are readily available, and B, they are inexpensive,” said John Daily, who runs the DA’s “When You’re Ready” campaign. to help direct people to recovery resources.

Daily, who is recovering himself, frequents hotels with other volunteers. He says help is not always welcome.

“We’re going out there and giving them exposure to a different way of life is bad for their business,” he said.

“A hotbed of activity”

Turner tries to help drug addicts in hotels by getting them clean needles and transporting Narcan, a life-saving medicine which can revive people in the throes of an overdose. She said she uses Narcan to revive people several times a week, given the prevalence of overdoses at FairBridge and nearby gas stations.

An hour before speaking with The Advocate on Thursday, Turner said she used Narcan on someone who overdosed in a nearby parking lot before calling an ambulance.

Since the start of 2021, EMS has responded to fatal and non-fatal overdose calls 188 times at the 14 worst-offending hotels. The hotel with the most overdoses during this period was the OYO Hotel on Gwenadele Avenue, where people overdosed at least 32 times, five of them fatally. The hotel became emblematic of wider issues after a fatal shooting in April.

Most problem hotels are clustered near a handful of busy intersections right next to freeways and freeways.

“Division 10-12 has created a hotbed of activity for us … and that’s very concerning,” said Metro Councilwoman Laurie Adams, whose District 11 contains the Gwenadele OYO and several others with high rates of overdoses.

Another hotspot: A cluster of three motels near Siegen Lane and I-10, where EMS has responded to 31 overdoses since the start of 2021.

With so many overdoses near these hotels, groups that distribute clean needles and Narcan have set up shop nearby.

Among these is the Capital Area Re-Entry Program, whose mobile unit provides clean needles, wound care kits, Hepatitis C, HIV testing and other resources for people who inject drugs. Their mobile unit’s schedule for May and June shows frequent visits to intersections near hotels with high overdose rates.

“We find that they are going to hotels, they are going to abandoned properties, they are going to places where they cannot be seen by their relatives to inject drugs,” Gjvar Payne said. , executive director of the Capital Reintegration Program in the area. “You’re prone to seeing a lot more people in hotels because I can get myself a room and binge for a few days.”

Jan Laughinghouse, executive director of Capital Area Human Services, said people overdose in hotels for the same reason they overdose in fast food restaurant bathrooms and in cars.

“It’s just an affordable place to be able to indulge in using them,” Laughinghouse said. “Any kind of budget hotel where people can afford to go, they can probably beg or engage in sex work to get the money to pay for the night… people who use substances are like us all of them want to be safe and secure.”

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The sign reads, “Welcome, living the Good life,” on the Oyo Hotel Baton Rouge East I-12, at 9999 Gwenadele Ave, seen Thursday, May 19, 2022. This particular OYO location had the most overdosed EMS calls from all hotels or motels in the parish since the beginning of last year.

“It’s rattling as hell”

Some hotels are scenes of crumbling buildings and insect infestations.

“It’s ratchet as hell and it’s not updated,” Turner said of the FairBridge.

On Thursday, standing in the parking lot of a gas station next to the motel, she rolled up her sleeves to reveal small pockmarks on her forearms, which she said were from the scabies she had caught in the motel.

Despite the Fairbridge’s dilapidated appearance — including a missing second-floor balcony, unusable rooms without plumbing, and reports of insects and mites inside — the landlord and building owner denies responsibility.

Manan Patel, whose BR-LA REALTY LLC is listed in property tax records as the owner of the hotel, insisted that the responsibility for maintaining the property rests solely with hotel management. ‘hotel.

“I just have the real estate, it’s not my responsibility,” Patel said.

Messages to FairBridge headquarters went unanswered, and a receptionist at the Baton Rouge site told reporters the manager was unavailable.

Patel’s hands-off approach differs from some other hotel owners, who say they try to keep their properties safe and well-maintained.

Raj Patel, owner of OYOs on Gwenadele and Meade, did not return a message seeking comment on this story. But, in an interview last month, he acknowledged the scale of the problems at his Gwenadele property and blamed staffing shortages caused by COVID and destructive weather events for the deterioration of his properties.

At the OYO Hotel on Mead Road – the site of 29 overdoses since the start of 2021 – a security guard told reporters on Thursday it was his first day dispatched to monitor the property.

What is being done about it?

Last month’s fatal shooting at the OYO on Gwenadele has rekindled pressure for parish leaders to find ways to force hotel owners to tackle crime.

Officials say they are contacting hotel owners directly to resolve issues.

“In many cases, verbal discussions in many cases help much more than the hammer of the law,” said city-parish administrative manager Darryl Gissel. “We have people who just refuse to comply, and that’s when you have to use the hammer.”

The problem, however, is that the parish often doesn’t have much of a hammer to wield.

In 2018, the Metro Council passed a new ordinance requiring hotels and motels to apply for permits. The parish could suspend or revoke these permits due to activities that “negatively impact the health, safety and well-being” of guests or people who live nearby. The parish was supposed to track data such as calls from law enforcement to support such actions.

But the legislation was never enforced. No one has been tasked with tracking the data and acting on it.

Adams, along with Councilman Dwight Hudson, worked to change the ordinance to require hotels to reapply for permits each year. They also want to raise the application fee by $100, to raise funds to pay for tracking and enforcement.

Even if the 2018 order were enforced, it could not be used to crack down on motels with high overdose rates because it sets a benchmark of at least five felony arrests, which rarely happens in overdoses.

Adams said she would like to change the ordinance in a way that would reduce drug use on properties. This could take the form of annual inspections so the parish town can see when a motel is falling into disrepair and take action by revoking its license.

In addition to the 2018 ordinance, some state laws allow for the crackdown on businesses or homes that become hotbeds of crime. East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore cited a law allowing law enforcement to report building nuisances, for example, in the case of two apartment complexes in the Tigerland area where several people have been killed in recent years.

Moore has been the only official to invoke the law in recent years, but he said a handful of law enforcement officials have the power to do so: the attorney general, the sheriff, the police chief, the parish attorney and the mayor’s office.

Despite the spate of overdoses, robberies and a handful of homicides at motels in the parish town, law enforcement officials say they can’t enforce the nuisance ordinance on them. Moore said that’s because the law only applies to specific crimes.

“This law has been around for years,” Moore said. “It’s very old and probably not up to date with the types of crimes we see today.”