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50 Years Ago: Gallup struggles with drunks on the streets

The refusal of the Gallup City Police to pick up intoxicated persons and charge them with disorderly conduct was in its third week and so far no exposure deaths were reported, although temperatures in the city had been below freezing every night.

Credit for this was given to tribal organizations and local city groups who had worked hard to find places for the street people to stay overnight. Churches had opened up their auditoriums and people had donated cots or sleeping bags. The tribe had spent money to provide sandwiches and nurses from the local hospitals had spent time doing spot checks to make sure those who used the services had no major health problems.

The previous weekend, the Gallup Indian Center had begun providing breakfast on weekends for those who wanted it. Christine Kay, who organized the program, said 400 showed up on Saturday and almost as many on Sunday. She reported having problems finding the funds to pay for the meals but at the last moment a local organization stepped in with $50.

The White Roots of Peace, an Iroquois group from New York, showed up in town that Friday night and volunteered to help serve the meals.

Dr. Jack Ellis, who represented the U.S. Public Health Service, said one of the problems they faced serving the meals was freeloaders who showed up to eat. Efforts would be made in the future, he said, to limit those who received the free meals to Gallup’s street people. He added that the important thing to take away from all of these efforts is that it is better to treat people humanely rather than just throw them in jail.

The goal of the tribe and local organizations was to find ways to continue these efforts until the weather warmed up enough that sleeping outdoors would not risk the possibility of freezing to death.

City police said they would continue to pick up drunks as long as there was a court order limiting the number they could pick up.

This ruling was made three weeks prior, just days after DNA-Peoples Legal Services filed a lawsuit claiming that conditions at the jail were inhumane with people picked up for public intoxication literally just placed on top of each other because of limited space in the jail.

Gallup Mayor Ray Erwin traveled to Washington, D.C., 50 years ago last week to try to get support for a federal grant to build a rehabilitation center. He issued a statement later saying while members of Congress he spoke to expressed concern no one provided any assurance that federal help would be forthcoming.

The state of New Mexico was asked for financial help but Gov. David Cargo said it may take a few weeks to secure funding.

City officials said by that time warm weather would be setting in and the crisis would be over. He did send the state liquor inspector who spent a couple of days in Gallup to make sure the liquor dealers were complying with state laws. Local groups applauded this move, pointing out that when they asked liquor dealers for help, they all declined despite a feeling by many that their greed was one of the reasons so many people were living on the street.

A spokesman for the liquor dealers said their refusal was for legal reasons. Liquor dealers, he said, realized there was a problem but worried that any financial help would be an admission they felt partly responsible for the problem, which could lead to lawsuits.

By this time, Gallup’s problems were being covered by newspapers throughout the state and the country. An article in the Albuquerque Journal said, “drunks were lining the streets of Gallup last weekend” which, if true, would have been cause for alarm.

In actuality, the situation hadn’t changed with some street people out of sight drinking beer and liquor while others were downtown and outside of local supermarkets panhandling for money to buy liquor.

Dick Hardwick, managing editor of the Times, said the paper was receiving a record number of letters to the editor on the subject. Many of the letter writers placed the blame for the situation on DNA.

One letter writer said DNA attorneys should have realized their bringing the lawsuit would get this kind of reaction from the jail and they should have filed it in the spring or summer so that people’s lives would not have been placed in jeopardy. Hardwick, no fan of DNA, said the filing of the lawsuit “performed no service” to either the Navajo people or the street people they were trying to help.

Hardwick said local media had printed over the past year numerous articles about the problem and city officials were aware as well, which is why a major effort was in place to get the funds to build a larger jail. Filing a lawsuit wouldn’t make them try harder, he argued.

Instead it led to a situation where the city’s street people were placed in more jeopardy. Another major loser in all of this, he said, was the Navajo Tribe. Tribal leaders had been faced, he said, with a massive image problem as newspapers across the country had been using photos in their stories showing the bodies of dozens of Navajo piled on top of each other in the city jail after being picked up for public intoxication. All this had done, he said, is give people the idea that all Navajos are drunks.



About The Author

Bill Donovan

Bill Donovan has been writing about the Navajo Nation government since 1971 and for the Navajo Times since 1976. He is currently semi-retired and is living in Torrance, California, and continues to report for the Navajo Times.

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