GALLUP – In mid-April a group of men – none of them Indian – walked into a public meeting to explain their idea to rid this reservation border town of its panhandling problem.
In Gallup, a tourist town and trading center in western New Mexico, on the edge of the Navajo and Zuni reservations, nearly all of the panhandlers are Indian.
The anti-panhandling campaign was called “Change in my heart, not in my pocket” and its leaders talked about having the compassion to say no to panhandlers and protecting the safety of the town’s women and children. Someone mentioned improving the city’s “aesthetics” so its tourist economy could grow. Gallup Mayor Jackie McKinney didn’t attend the rollout meeting, but he supported the idea and spoke of citizens having the “courage to say no.”
Gallup has a long and tortured history of racial tension, exploitation and mistrust, so you can guess how “Change in my heart” was received.
“They got lambasted, being called racist,” McKinney told me when I checked in to see how the 90-day anti-panhandling effort was going. “It really took a little wind out of their sails.”
McKinney, who has lived in Gallup most of his life, said the reaction was shocking. “I’m not a racist,” he said. “Some of my best friends are Native Americans.”
Jennifer Denetdale, an associate professor of American Studies at the University of New Mexico who is Navajo and grew up in Tohatchi and has been trading in Gallup all her life, was one of the program’s fiercest critics.
“They call them ‘inebriates’ and ‘trespassers’ and ‘transients,’ ” Denetdale said. “They try not to say that we’re talking about Navajos.”
Instead of organizing the community to cut off money and hope the street people disappear, Denetdale suggests working to limit package liquor outlets and improve alcohol rehabilitation programs – “Trying to behave like a good neighbor instead of being in a bad cowboy movie and talking about the safety of women and children.”
In retrospect, McKinney acknowledges that the racial ramifications of the campaign should have been obvious.
“We missed it. We all missed it,” McKinney said. “And shame on us.”
Even though there has also been support from Navajos and non-Indians in Gallup, the campaign is on hold for now as organizers regroup. But it has opened up a discussion of the social problems and inadequate services that lead to a permanent population of people living on the streets and asking for handouts.
Chuck Van Drunen welcomed me into his house on a hill in Gallup and offered to make me a latte. He’s the co-owner of Gallup Journey, a local news magazine, and one of the people who started the “Change in my heart” movement.
Reginald Mitchell was already seated at the kitchen table drinking coffee, and he playfully introduced himself as the panhandling campaign’s token Navajo.
Van Drunen is one of those Gallup imports – he’s from Illinois – who came on a whim and stayed because he loved the mountain biking and hiking and mix of cultures. After years of giving handouts to end an annoying encounter or feel like he was helping a fellow man, he started to question whether giving money to a problem drinker was actually compassionate. Instead of handing over the dollar, Van Drunen thought giving money to charities that feed and house the homeless might do more to improve the panhandler’s life.
“The question we had to ask ourselves is ‘What really helps these people? Does giving money really help them?’ ” Van Drunen said. “If you say, ‘Here’s a dollar’ the reality is you may have helped contribute to their death that night.”
Mitchell, a member of the Navajo tribe who runs a jiujitsu studio in Gallup, came on board because he saw the initiative as an avenue to deeper change in the community. He wasn’t at the rollout meeting, but he said he can understand how people who were there could see it as racist.
“Using the word ‘panhandler’ is just a nicer way of saying ‘the drunk,’ ‘the Indian.’ As a Native American,” Mitchell said, “it is embarrassing because it is my people who are out there. We need to stop looking at is as us against them. We need to work together for solutions.”
Unemployment drives men into Gallup, Mitchell says, where a thriving alcohol industry makes money off their sickness. The campaign would be just a step toward solving some old and deep problems. “It’s not a simple thing. It’s not easy. There’s so much that contributes to the ugliness that’s in this town.”
The mayor says panhandling, always a problem, is getting worse. In the transition to new management of the city’s detox center, stays have been temporarily cut from three days to overnight, which has contributed to more drunk people on the street. And he says he’s seen a change in the panhandling community. It used to be older men traveling solo and in pairs, and now they have been joined by younger people in groups of four or more.
The mayor says he gets complaints from Gallup residents and tourists who are followed from their cars into stores and restaurants and badgered for money.
“They come off as aggressive,” McKinney says. “They won’t take ‘no’ for an answer. People should have the right to be able to go into any business and come beck out without being harassed, intimidated or in fear.”
Pulling into the Safeway parking lot and then into a gas station on the way out of town, I was quickly approached by men looking for money.
At Safeway, John Nakai from Rough Rock, Ariz., ambled up and gave me his pitch. He was in the area to visit his mom and he missed his bus, so he had slept out behind the store the night before. He had $30 worth of food stamps and he’d sell them to me for $15.
“I need to get a room, a place to sleep, instead of freezing out here,” he said. “I don’t use it for booze or nothing like that. Drunks. That’s the major thing in Gallup.”
The encounter didn’t bother me, and Nakai left when I turned him down. But if it happened repeatedly, every time you needed gas or groceries or a sandwich, I can imagine it would get tiresome.
At the gas station, four military veterans walked over and asked for money. I didn’t give them anything, but we had a nice conversation about the psychology of panhandling. “I can look at people and see who can help me out, otherwise I leave them alone,” Gilbert Birdsong, a psychology minor in college, told me.
At the end of our encounter, as I was getting in the car, one of them leaned in and asked, “Can you make me feel like I belong?” He wasn’t asking for money anymore. He asked for a hug.