Drunk Town, USA: The Ditch Patrol Trying to Save Drunks in Gallup, New Mexico
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.”
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