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Border Town, USA: An Ugly Reality Many Natives Call Home

Statistics, however, of contemporary American Indian life may shed light on the problems of border town violence, poverty, and homelessness.
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Maxine Hanley was 16 when she had her first drink. At 50, homeless and living on the streets of Gallup, she drank two to three pints of hard liquor a day and slept wherever she could.

Now sober and living in Gallup’s C.A.R.E. 66 transitional housing, Maxine described her former life as one consumed with fear and relentless heartache. She spoke in a soft, stern voice as she recounted a half-century cycle of violence that began where she grew up in Tohatchi, New Mexico. in the Navajo Nation and continued to haunt her on border town streets.

“I grew up as an adult,” she said. The oldest of three, she took care of her younger siblings while her parents and relatives drank around her—often getting between family members in violent brawls and fights.

Family violence, for Maxine, was routine, and the abuse was emotional, physical, and sexual.

“I was scared,” she said. “I wasn’t the only one.”

As a teenager, she often ran away. At 18, she left home and the reservation for good.

But Maxine carried the trauma of her youth with her as she moved from city to city looking for work and an escape. She found other Native people like her, but the painful memories of her past haunted her in what she saw as a private affliction.

“It was always there,” she spoke quietly.

Life was constant transition. Moving from place to place or moving from street to street to avoid harassment from police and strangers, the places Maxine traveled were no places; violence and pain awaited her in the next city or just around corner.

But she never felt homeless. “I’d call every place I went my home,” Maxine laughed. “We’d stay wherever we had to stay.”

Always befriending other Native people like her, she understood her affliction was shared among many and the violence she knew they also knew.

“I’m not the only one who’s like this,” she said. But she always asked herself, “How come I ended up like this?”

In recovery from three decades of hard living, Maxine reflected on her circumstances. It wasn’t just her childhood and her parents. It wasn’t just the alcohol. It was many things. It was half-a-century of violence for Maxine, most of it spent on the streets of border towns.

“All of us are different,” she stated, as she spoke about the Native people she met on the street—entire families, youth, the jobless, veterans, the mentally ill, addicts, and felons. While the stories were different, the violence was always there.

The violence of border town life, however, is a complicated problem as Native America’s population shifts from a less and less reservation-base to an increasing urban-base.

Maxine’s story is one of many. Statistics, however, of contemporary American Indian life may shed light on the problems of border town violence, poverty, and homelessness.

The 2010 U.S. Census reports that 78 percent of American Indians live off-reservation. Of approximately 5.2 million that self-identify as American Indian, roughly 4 million live off reservation and federal trust land.

With that comes new challenges to age-old problems. Statistics show the social ills many equate with reservation life are compounded in border towns, both rural and urban.

For example, while statistically homeless people experience a disproportionate amount of violence from police and are often victims of hate crimes, in places such as Gallup and other notorious border towns violence perpetrated against Native homeless and poor exceeds national averages.

A 2012 joint study from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness concluded that, though American Indians and Alaskan Natives make up 1.2 percent of the U.S. population, 4 percent of all sheltered homeless individuals are Native and 4.8 percent of all sheltered families are Native homeless, mainly in urban settings. Though these statistics far exceed national averages among all other groups, unsheltered Native homeless are not included in this study, which may be higher than these numbers.

The study also highlights socioeconomic factors such as rampant poverty—American Indians being the poorest in the U.S.—and overcrowding of family homes on- and off-reservation. Chronic poverty and historic structural challenges breeds widespread violence, unemployment, health issues, and increased criminalization and incarceration rates.

Nick Estes

C.A.R.E. 66 is located in downtown Gallup in the historic Lexington Hotel. Services offered include: daily meals, substance abuse counseling, 33 renovated rooms, and social services. The center is supported by a coalition of city government and community organizations.

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The study further notes that substance abuse among American Indians is often linked to violence. Natives experience almost twice as much violence than any other group. Sixty-percent report that they have experienced violence from a perpetrator under the influence of alcohol, surpassing national averages.

A 2006 Department of Justice study concluded that more than one in three indigenous women in the U.S. are raped in their lifetime as compared to the national average of one in five. This data, however, was collected mainly in urban centers and off-reservation locales and do not include unreported acts and sexual crimes committed on reservation or federal trust lands.

The 2013 Bureau of Indian Affairs Labor Force Report notes unemployment rates among two of the largest tribal populations with large land bases—the Navajo Nation of Arizona and New Mexico and the Lakota and Dakota Nations in South Dakota—as somewhere between 40 to 45 percent, significantly higher than national averages.

The mass incarceration of Native peoples, too, follows these trends.

According to a 2009 National Council on Crime and Delinquency report, American Indians were arrested and incarcerated at higher levels than other groups. When compared to whites, the study states American Indians were 1.5 times likely to be arrested; four times more likely to be admitted to prison with Native women 6 times more likely; two times more likely to be incarcerated; and more than 3 times likely to be held in juvenile detention. Native youth were also 2 times more likely to be admitted to adult prison. The study concludes that criminal sentencing for people of color, in general, was harsher and longer than whites.

While these statistics paint a bleak picture of Native America, Indigenous scholars Maggie Walter (Trawlwoolway) and Chris Andersen (Métis) warn in their book Indigenous Statistics how these statistics can create “deficit Indigenes”—or negative perceptions of Indigenous Peoples when compared to other groups. They observe, “Not only are Indigenous Peoples constituted as ‘the problem,’ non-Indigenous ways of life are left uncritiqued.”

Maxine was part of “the problem” of Native people living on the streets in border towns. But her struggle wasn’t just a personal one. She was a statistic of deficit and dysfunction in a nation of plenty that has historically denied access to resources, privilege, and life chances to its Indigenous Peoples.

Surviving the stranglehold of that system for decades was a miracle. She was almost shot and narrowly escaped several other violent encounters.

But getting out was the hard part.

A mother of four and grandmother of three and still on the streets, she asked herself, “What am I doing here?”

With the help of a friend and social service programs, Maxine quit drinking and got herself off the streets.

Amidst her transition, she recounted vivid dreams during alcohol withdrawal.

“Did I die?” she asked herself one night after a dream.

The counseling she received was cathartic. But the violence she experienced over her lifetime took an emotional toll. “I just held it in,” she said, as she spoke about how she came to realize all the trauma she experienced, beginning with her childhood and carrying on through her adult life on the streets.

After getting out, Maxine committed to taking college courses at UNM-Gallup. With a 3.89 GPA, she plans on becoming a registered nurse at an assisted living center.

She still walks the streets of Gallup talking with Native people, helping where she can.

Maxine sees her personal struggles as part of a larger mission as a board member of the C.A.R.E. 66 transitional housing program for homeless people—which provides 20 beds, meals, and behavioral health services.

“We’re like family now,” she said of the people she works with.

The violence other homeless Natives experience on a daily basis in Gallup still worries her and is a reminder of her own past life. While she has overcome addiction, she still feels the pain and suffering of those on the streets. They are the family she watches over.

“I’ve been a caretaker all my life.”

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