Last week, Kara Almand woke up feeling blessed. She had been living at a drug rehab center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, for almost 15 months. News of the coronavirus pandemic was unsettling, especially in a state roiled by a sudden spike in cases, but Almand had a place to live and sobriety. It was more than she could say for many people she knew struggling with addiction.

A few hours later, Almand learned she would soon be homeless.

On March 25, executives from the Cenikor Foundation called Almand and some 60 other participants into a meeting room and told them their local long-term rehab facility was shutting its doors. They had two days to find another place to live.

“It was just kind of, like, ‘Oh my god. Where am I gonna go?’ ” Almand said. “It was just major anxiety. I was in panic mode.” 

“We were stunned. Nobody knew what to do,” said Miles Miller, another Cenikor participant. “Everybody was terrified.”

Patients yelled and cried. Some sat in shock. Some left; at least one quickly relapsed. Most employees were told to immediately pack up and leave, former staffers said, and were not allowed to counsel or comfort clients. 

“They came in and told us to get the hell out, more or less,” said Mary Huval, who worked as a counselor at Cenikor until she was let go last week. “It was like, ‘Hurry, hurry, hurry.’ Didn’t want us to speak with no clients. They wouldn’t even let me say goodbye to them.”

Many feared their fate walking back out into Louisiana, a state that has one of the fastest-growing numbers of coronavirus cases in the world.

“They put us out during this to find a place to live?” Almand said. “Now my life is at risk, my health. It’s dangerous.”

In a statement provided to Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, Cenikor said the closure was due to “declining demand for long-term treatment in Louisiana and related concerns over coronavirus impacting economic operations.” The statement said Cenikor, which offers a variety of rehab services at 13 locations across Texas and Louisiana, is suspending services at its long-term facility in Baton Rouge.

Cenikor called the measure temporary. “Cenikor is suspending the program, not closing it,” said Cenikor spokesperson Katherine McLane.  

As a result, she said, the program does not have to follow state requirements for facility closures, which state that rehab facilities must give clients 30 days’ advance written notice of a closure. The program’s short-term and detox programs in Baton Rouge remain open. 

Democratic State Rep. C. Denise Marcelle of East Baton Rouge Parish said Cenikor’s decision risks endangering lives and may also violate Gov. John Bel Edwards’ March order temporarily halting evictions in the state.

“Putting people out during this time is unimaginable,” Marcelle said. “I have rental properties myself. I can’t get my rent because people can’t pay because they can’t go to work. I just can’t put anybody out.”

State Sen. Katrina Jackson, D-Monroe, said she planned to alert the governor’s office about the abrupt closure and questioned whether Cenikor needed to shut down the facility at all, given the substantial financial assistance now available from state agencies and the federal CARES Act for coronavirus relief. Jackson said Cenikor could have furloughed employees or reduced hours, among other less extreme measures.

“It’s extremely disappointing to see anyone closing their doors, especially those who are treating those in recovery, who need it the most right now,” Jackson said. “Before you put a vulnerable population on the street and send employees home with absolutely no pay, did they reach out to their elected officials, reach out to those in their area and see what was available?”

Cenikor’s Baton Rouge program had been struggling financially for almost a year, after a Reveal investigation exposed that Cenikor had sent thousands of participants to work without pay for hundreds of companies over the years – including Exxon, Shell and Walmart – in potential violation of federal labor law. Companies that used Cenikor labor paid the program, which did not pass on the pay to participants. 

Following Reveal’s exposé, Cenikor’s Baton Rouge facility began to struggle. Many companies canceled their labor contracts with the program, cutting into revenue, and the number of clients dwindled. Nearly two years ago, about 120 clients lived in the facility. By last week, their ranks had fallen to about 60, employees and clients said.

Last week, as COVID-19 continued to spread and the governor issued a stay-at-home order, more businesses notified Cenikor that they could no longer have participants working there, Huval and other employees said.

The program’s abrupt closure illustrates the fragility of drug treatment centers and sober living homes amid the nationwide spread of the coronavirus. Residential rehabs often require residents to live in close quarters, allowing illness to spread easily. As a result, many states have advised such programs to limit outside contact and visitors. But Cenikor and many other programs that feature work requirements for their participants have continued to send participants out on jobs, putting them at serious risk of infection.

A facility closure comes with other dangers, especially for people struggling with substance abuse, many of whom lack close family ties or financial support. Sudden homelessness can trigger relapse and overdose and can leave people more vulnerable to the virus, since it may be impossible to sanitize or maintain distance from others, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends. Marcelle, the state representative, said homeless shelters in Baton Rouge are stretched beyond capacity. 

After Cenikor notified staff and residents of the closure March 25, residents were given the option of transferring to Cenikor facilities in Texas. But many participants had been court-ordered to the program and were barred from crossing state lines. As residents panicked, administrators asked two counselors to stay behind to help place dozens of residents at other facilities.

Behind the scenes, laid-off Cenikor staff and graduates of the Baton Rouge program worked around the clock to help. A sober living home in Baton Rouge told Reveal that it waived its usual entry fee to provide residents a place to stay. At least two other rehab programs also took people in. But by last Friday, many clients were still without a place to go. 

“Man, we out here looking for a place to go right now,” said Ryan Millett. “We’re basically homeless at the moment. It’s very stressful. Everybody else done washed their hands of us.”

Wendy Duhon said she feared her son, a Cenikor resident, had gone back to the streets and relapsed on heroin. She hadn’t heard from him since the day the closure was announced, when he called in a panic.

“I haven’t heard back from him, so I don’t know what’s going on,” she said. “I don’t know when he’ll even be able to call back. It’s heartbreaking. It’s not a life you want to live. For him or people who are addicted to drugs or alcohol, something like this just makes it even worse.”

The coronavirus has caused concern among residents at Cenikor’s other long-term facilities. Residents at the Fort Worth, Texas, location are sent to work at CKS Packaging, a bottle manufacturing plant in Dallas, where two workers recently tested positive for the virus, according to the company. Cenikor residents said they feared catching the virus, but the program told them that they were still required to go to work at the plant, even though Cenikor does not provide masks or gloves. 

In a statement provided to Reveal, Cenikor said it is following local, state and federal guidelines related to the coronavirus, but declined to describe specific measures they are taking to protect participants in Fort Worth. CKS said the company is protecting workers by limiting visitors, keeping workers six feet apart and sanitizing surfaces. Supervisors send anyone exhibiting symptoms home.

“If someone develops symptoms, they’re sent home and requested to go to a doctor,” said Ken Anderson, senior director of quality and safety at CKS. He said he had confidence that if a Cenikor worker got sick, “they would let us know and not send anyone to us who was not feeling well.”

Last week, one Cenikor participant in Fort Worth was quarantined with a high fever, according to a resident and the parent of another resident. Fort Worth is in Tarrant County, which has issued a stay-at-home order for all but essential workers. Anderson said CKS is considered essential because it supplies bottles for cleaning products.

Fearful that her daughter would catch the virus, Dawn Traylor drove to the Fort Worth Cenikor facility last week to pick her up. Traylor’s daughter, Brittney Cardenas, was court-ordered to the facility, so her attorney had to file an emergency motion with a district court judge in Limestone County to formally request permission for Cardenas to leave Cenikor. That motion is pending.

“The recent COVID-19 pandemic, and the reckless conduct of the persons in charge of operating the Centikor (sic) facility in Ft. Worth, Texas, has placed the Defendant’s physical safety and health at great risk,” attorney Raymond Sanders wrote in his filing. “The job the Defendant is being required to do is failing to following (sic) many of the government mandated precautions. The Defendant is forced to being housed in dorm type housing where social distancing is impossible. Many visitors are coming and going in the facility and is placing the Defendant at a very high risk of exposure to COVID-19.”

Traylor said she is concerned about other residents at the facility, who are continuing to go to work.

“They should have locked it down like everybody else has done,” Traylor said. “But they just keep working. I’m furious. I’m so mad. Obviously, they don’t care about the health of people in the place.”

In Baton Rouge, Kara Almand found herself facing a financial dilemma as well. In November, she had begun the reentry phase of the program; she had landed a paying job as a waitress and began paying Cenikor $500 a month in rent. But after being kicked out before the end of the month, Almand told Reveal that Cenikor did not provide a refund for the remaining days, an account confirmed by other participants in reentry. Several residents told Reveal that Cenikor returned their food stamp cards, but their benefits for the month had already been withdrawn by Cenikor. Although most residents had worked full time in the program, Cenikor had taken all of their pay, common practice at all of the organization’s long-term rehab facilities. The residents walked out the door, into the pandemic, without money, food or transportation.

As with many of the former residents, when Almand left Cenikor on Friday, she still didn’t have a place to go. As of Tuesday, she was homeless, crashing on a friend’s family’s couch and searching for an apartment with a friend from Cenikor.

“Because the virus is bad, a lot of people won’t show property,” Almand said. “And we don’t have much. I’m struggling.”

This story was edited by Esther Kaplan and copy edited by Nikki Frick.

Shoshana Walter can be reached at swalter@revealnews.org. Follow her on Twitter: @shoeshine.

Shoshana Walter

Shoshana Walter is a reporter for Reveal, covering criminal justice. She and reporter Amy Julia Harris exposed how courts across the country are sending defendants to rehabs that are little more than lucrative work camps for private industry. Their work was a finalist for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in national reporting. It also won the Knight Award for Public Service, a Sigma Delta Chi Award for investigative reporting, and an Edward R. Murrow Award, and was a finalist for the Selden Ring, IRE and Livingston Awards. It led to numerous government investigations, two criminal probes and five federal class-action lawsuits alleging slavery, labor violations and fraud.

Walter's investigation on America's armed security guard industry revealed how armed guard licenses have been handed out to people with histories of violence, even people barred by courts from owning guns. Walter and reporter Ryan Gabrielson won the 2015 Livingston Award for Young Journalists for national reporting based on the series, which prompted new laws and an overhaul of California’s regulatory system. For her 2016 investigation about the plight of "trimmigrants," marijuana workers in California's Emerald Triangle, Walter embedded herself in illegal mountain grows and farms. There, she encountered an epidemic of sex abuse and human trafficking in the industry – and a criminal justice system focused more on the illegal drugs. The story prompted legislation, a criminal investigation and grass-roots efforts by the community, including the founding of a worker hotline and safe house.

Walter began her career as a police reporter for The Ledger in Lakeland, Florida, and previously covered violent crime and the politics of policing in Oakland, California, for The Bay Citizen. Her narrative nonfiction as a local reporter garnered a national Sigma Delta Chi Award and a Gold Medal for Public Service from the Florida Society of News Editors. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, she has been a Dart Center Ochberg fellow for journalism and trauma at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim fellow in criminal justice journalism. She is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.