It’s past midnight on a cold February evening, and a woman staggers down the middle of the street, so intoxicated she can’t remember her address.
In another part of town, two men have crawled inside cupboards and passed out. Behind a fast-food joint, a trio hides in the sagebrush, their breath and skin reeking with the last thing they ingested: Gatorade laced with hair spray.
Every day, these men and women roam the streets panhandling or looking for work. Every night, they seek shelter, refuge, a place to drink and forget. Most of them are Native.
This is what hopelessness looks like. This is Gallup, New Mexico.
Voted the most patriotic small town in America, Gallup is home to some of the country’s largest cultural events. Combined, the Gathering of Nations and the Inter-Tribal Indian Ceremonial bring tens of thousands of visitors to this town located on the historic Route 66 and the I-40 corridor near the New Mexico-Arizona border.
Yet Gallup, with its 44-percent Native population, is also a factory of despair. A true “border town,” it is surrounded on three sides by reservation land and its closest neighbors are tribes and pueblos. People from the Navajo Nation and the Zuni, Acoma, Laguna and Isleta pueblos frequent Gallup for employment or entertainment, or to partake of the town’s seemingly endless supply of liquor.
“Many Native Americans travel to Gallup looking for jobs and subsidized housing,” Mayor Jackie McKinney said. “They come from Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, and they come in with a hope and a dream. But we can’t employ all these people and they lose hope. They fall into these lifestyles of drinking.”
Booze is readily available in this town, which is a strange juxtaposition of cheap hotels, seedy bars and upscale trading posts specializing in Native art. Gallup has 39 liquor licenses and a population of 22,000, a ratio of liquor licenses per person that is unbeatable in the rest of the state. The FBI recently called Gallup the most dangerous city in New Mexico, and violent crime—much of it stemming from alcohol and substance abuse—is five times the national average.
Gallup has for decades battled its reputation for public intoxication. In this place simultaneously known as the Capital of Indian Country and Drunk Town, USA, lawmakers, nonprofit organizations and individuals for half a century have tried to curb the issues of chronic homelessness and alcoholism.
“This is a decades-long issue,” said McKinney, who has lived in Gallup for 53 years. “We keep trying to solve it, but we keep putting Band-Aids on the problem.”
Sixty-six certified police officers are tasked with keeping the town safe, McKinney said. On average, each officer responds to 500 calls per month—or about 17 per 18-hour shift.
Every resident shoulders the burden of living in a dangerous town, he said. Although Gallup recently passed a law banning “aggressive panhandling,” all sectors of daily life—from business to tourism—have been hit hard, McKinney said.
He tells stories of young mothers being harassed in grocery stores or tourists leaving town after encounters with indigent people. “Would you want to live here if you had young children?” he said. “We have serious quality-of-life issues for our citizens.”
But Gallup’s bleakest tales are told by its nine community service aides, a team of uncertified officers who patrol the streets at night during a graveyard shift they call “ditch patrol.” Between November and April, aides travel the city by van or foot in search of intoxicated people who have passed out in ditches or arroyos, inside cupboards or beneath rocky ledges. Others take shelter in thickets of sagebrush or dig their own tunnels and caves.
For 22-year-old Adrian Quetawki, who has worked for eight months as a community service aide, the shift amounts to a nightly game of cat-and-mouse on the deserted city streets and surrounding hills and canyons. For eight hours per night, five days per week, Quetawki searches for inebriates with one goal in mind: get to them before the cold weather does.
“They drink rubbing alcohol, Listerine, Lysol, perfume, whatever they can find,” said Quetawki, who makes the daily drive to work in Gallup from his home in the Zuni Pueblo. “They drink and hide, sometimes two or more in a crevice or cave. They’d rather take their chances in the cold than go to detox.”
If they’re intoxicated but not injured, officers transport them to Gallup’s only detox center, a 180-bed shelter that holds people for up to 72 hours—usually until their blood-alcohol level returns to normal. But for many of these people, a sober morning means 12 more hours of panhandling and looking for their next fix.
“There’re out here because there’s nothing to do at home, and we pick up the same people over and over,” Quetawki said. “I’m here because no one else is going to pick them up. No one else is going to make sure they’re all right.”
Since he joined the ditch patrol last year, Quetawki has personally picked up more than 1,000 individuals and transported them to detox, he said. During a recent shift, Quetawki and his partner, Justin Olvera, rounded up nine individuals in the first four hours.
Between 10:30 p.m. and 2:30 a.m., the temperature dropped from 36 degrees to 24. They found people stumbling on streets or sidewalks; others were holed in up makeshift shelters. Some, having had too much to drink, simply passed out where they were standing.
Quetawki and Olvera look for signs of life in the underbelly of Gallup: piles of discarded clothes, stolen linens, mounds of plastic vodka bottles. Often they find people dressed in layers of clothing—three or four pairs of pants—to keep out the cold.
“Sometimes you’re in the right area at the right time,” Quetawki said. “You’re there when a drunk pedestrian is about to walk into traffic, or you arrive before someone freezes to death.”
But sometimes, the ditch patrol is too late. As they walk the darkened trails and ditches, Quetawki and Olvera can point out locations where bodies were found.
According to data from New Mexico’s Office of the Medical Investigator, 24 people have died of hypothermia here since 2014. All 24 were Native.
This winter, eight people have died from hypothermia, intoxication or medical issues, Police Captain Ricky White said. All of them were Native.
The department lumps these numbers together as “exposure deaths,” White said. “We’re hoping we don’t get any more.”
As temperatures warm, community service aides breathe a collective sigh of relief. But the reprieve is temporary: Gallup’s only detox center, Na’nizhoozhi Center Inc., is chronically underfunded and faces possible closure before next winter.
An emergency funding package will keep the center open through June 30, but after that, the city once again will flounder for funds. It’s part of an annual battle for money to operate a center that opened in 1992 and serves 24,000 people per year.
“Right now we’re operating on a six-month budget,” McKinney said. “We have no recurring funding, so in the middle of next winter we’ll be in the same place.”
But funding for a detox center is only the tip of the iceberg, McKinney said. For most of Gallup’s street people, the center is simply a place to sleep off a hangover and get some warm food. Without real, lasting solutions that address the complex roots of the problem, little will change.
“Anywhere else in the U.S., if you had 18 deaths of exposure in one year, it would be an epidemic,” he said. “Why does everyone want to keep not seeing this?”
The gravity of the situation is not lost on Quetawki, whose father was a tribal police officer for the Zuni Pueblo. He plans to become a certified police officer in Gallup and continue to do everything he can to help.
“There’s always going to be alcohol sales here,” he said. “There’s always going to be people drinking. They have a reason to drink: they’re hurting inside and they don’t see themselves living a better life. But as long as they’re out here, I’ll be out here too.”