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‘Drunk Town USA’: Gallup Working Together to Erase Stigma

The city has had a terrible time for decades, trying to control substance abuse issues that at best give Gallup a rough reputation.
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Gallup, New Mexico is a cultural mecca, rich in Hispanic tradition and serving as a border town for the pueblos of Zuni and Laguna and the Navajo Nation. It’s a beautiful place, surrounded by desert, ringed with mountains, and crossed with dry arroyos. Tourists stroll in a charming downtown, buy unparalleled Native arts and crafts, and explore the outdoors.

But Gallup also has a dark side. On any given morning, hungover people stumble out of the arroyos, in twos and threes, and start down the sidewalk toward the package stores to start drinking again. The city has had a terrible time for decades, trying to control substance abuse issues that at best give Gallup a rough reputation, and at worst lead to dozens of deaths each winter, when intoxicated people, primarily Native Americans, wander into the arroyos and freeze.

Now, questions about the future of alcohol treatment options in Gallup are highlighting both the rifts that have developed around the issue, and the abiding passion and hope that keeps people at the table, fighting for solutions.

In late March, Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., met with Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye and Vice President Jonathan Nez, to encourage funding for the Na’nízhoozhí Center Incorporated, also known as NCI and often confused, because of an intertwined history, with the Gallup Detoxification Center.

RELATED: Sen. Udall On Health Crisis in Drunk Town, USA

And in a press release about the meeting, the Navajo Nation Office of the President and Vice President announced its intention to stop funding NCI and instead contract for residential treatment services with Rehoboth McKinley Christian Health Care Services, which operates a full-service Gallup hospital including a residential substance abuse treatment program.

The announcement came as a surprise even to Jonathan Hale, a Navajo Nation Council member who chairs the Health, Education and Human Services Committee.

“This was news to the committee,” he said. “There was no communication out of the President’s office. Our next question was, where is the money going to come from? The general fund? Does this mean cuts to the chapters?”

NCI, which has been celebrated regionally for its incorporation of traditional Navajo medicine and its high success rates, maintains 25 beds in its traditional residential treatment facility, but has managed the city’s detox center only intermittently, due to funding streams and contract arrangements that have been unstable for years.

The Navajo Nation’s public statements leave it unclear whether the Nation will continue to fund detox at all in the notoriously addicted town.

“We’re a public servant,” said Kevin Foley, NCI’s executive director. “NCI was created to provide humane care to the publicly intoxicated, and that’s what our mission is. Even if we don’t do detox, we’ll carry on with traditional residential substance abuse treatment.”

Meanwhile, a resurrected idea from the 1990s – to envelop Gallup’s addicted population in a safety net of services – has gained steam and is capturing the attention of both the state of New Mexico and the Navajo Nation. A wide range of partners include the hospital, NCI, area schools, police, career counselors and a host of representatives from the city, county, state and tribal governments.

Two Steps Back

David Conejo, the CEO at Rehoboth, has been in charge at the hospital twice. The first time was between 1984 and 1994, a decade that highlighted a storied 1989 march, from Gallup to Santa Fe, that he organized alongside then-mayor Eddie Munoz. The point was to highlight an epidemic: during January of that winter, one drunk person a day had either perished in a drunk-driving crash, or frozen to death in the arroyos and desert around Gallup.

Anne Minard

David Conejo, CEO at Rehoboth McKinley Christian Health Care Services, describes a comprehensive plan to tackle alcoholism in Gallup.

The legislature responded by allocating $400,000 to study the problem. Two solutions emerged: partial restrictions on the sale of packaged liquor – especially the drive-up windows that were once open after the bars closed – and the opening of a detox center.

The detox center still exists today, although it has changed hands and endured financial highs and lows, and now faces an uncertain future.

Meanwhile, Rehoboth has been through its own gauntlet, including a series of administrators that ran the entire hospital into near-financial ruin during Conejo’s 20-year absence. Having spent the two decades between 1994 and 2014 as a hospital administrator in Texas, he was nearing retirement – or so he thought. Old friends from Gallup brought him in to see the state of the hospital. He was saddened by its decline – and he was eventually convinced to return, and help.

One of the people who exerted the most pressure was Genevieve Jackson, Navajo, a McKinley County Commissioner.

“I told her I was getting ready to retire,” Conejo recalls. “And she said, ‘I don’t care.’”

Jackson knew Rehoboth was in trouble, and she insisted on doing something.

“Who do you see when you go to the emergency room here?” she said. “It’s 95 percent Native Americans. I felt like I represented them.” She said staff morale at the hospital was at an all-time low, and many Gallup residents were frightened about the possibility that the hospital could shut down altogether. There is an IHS facility across the street, the Gallup Indian Medical Center, but both hospitals are needed.

“This was the community hospital,” she said. “Where were we going to go if this one was gone?”

Jackson’s efforts made her anything but popular, especially since the 15 or so members of the hospital board were prominent Gallup socialites.

“I was in the crosshairs of the Gallup social club,” she says now.

Enduring Hope

Eventually, Jackson and other like-minded community members – including editorial writers at the local newspaper, the Gallup Independent – finally put enough pressure on Conejo that he moved to Gallup in mid-2014, along with William Kiefer, the shrewd chief operating officer who had been working for him in Texas.

In 2015, the first year that reflects the new leadership, the hospital reversed a years-long trend of multi-million-dollar losses, and grew by $3 million.

“Now every department has experienced growth,” Kiefer said.

Anne Minard

Locals organized to transform this abandoned brick plant site from a drinking hangout to a community bike park.

Conejo, Kiefer and Jackson are just three of dozens of community members who are behind a coordinated effort to band together for a holistic solution to Gallup’s ongoing substance abuse problems. Rehoboth has resurrected its own residential treatment center, and hopes to add 40 beds to NCI’s 25. NCI hopes to add more beds of its own. Part of the answer is sending sober people back out into the community, where they can lead increasingly productive lives and help others, Conejo said.

Even some bar owners have changed their tunes. Gone are most of the fall-down saloons of decades past. Patrons have come to realize that they make better money if a lot of people come in for a couple of drinks – and inebriated customers scare those people away. A prominent symbol of the change is Sammy C’s, a pub that stretches a full city block and includes Gallup’s Starbucks. On a recent Friday afternoon, the place smelled of good food, not booze – and one customer sat studying in a brightly lit common area.

Members of the greater Gallup community have also been pitching in, in individual ways. Attorney and former Gallup mayor Bob Rosebrough, for example, initiated the city’s effort to clean up the abandoned site of the Gallup Brick Plant, which shut down decades ago. The former plant was located in a canyon spanning about six acres, where drunks used to hang out – and it was exactly the sort of place where they were likely to doze off and freeze to death.

Now, thanks to the efforts of Rosebrough and like-minded community members, the Brickyard Bike Park is a network of trails where kids can go and practice jumps and hilly descents.

Rosebrough said he’s oscillated on more direct involvement with Gallup’s substance abuse problems, partly because the issue gets divisive and exhausting, too often creating finger-pointing between the Navajo Nation and city officials, as well as foot-dragging by the community’s long-established liquor businesses.

As a case in point, the recent Navajo Nation press release pointed out that the liquor industry “has usually blocked efforts to limit liquor licenses and for closure of bars and package liquor establishments. Furthermore, these same bar owners have never sat down at the table to find solutions for the exposure deaths and alcohol related problems drowning the city.”

And Vice President Nez said the city of Gallup has failed to do its part: millions of dollars are funneled into the city from Navajo patronage, he said, but only a small percentage is being returned in needed services, such as those provided by NCI.

The long-term rifts are a source of frustration for people driven to address the issue.

“There’s too much discrimination on both sides of the fence,” Jackson said. “These are our people who come from all over the Four Corners area. It’s a human problem, and we all have to address it together.”

Rosebrough tried to push for more liquor controls when he was mayor from 2003 to 2007, and he still thinks tighter regulation would be a good idea.

“For example, it would help in Gallup if we limited early morning sales of packaged liquor,” he said. Meanwhile, he is rooting for Conejo’s collaborative, community-based approach to address the treatment angle.

And despite the fact that NCI, Rehoboth and even the city of Gallup could receive funding for detox and other services, NCI’s Foley declines to see it as a competition.

“NCI was never supposed to be the whole solution,” he said. “Our role is being a participant in the collaborative and helping to bring all of the services together to meet the need. The purpose of the collaborative is for everybody to work together.

It’s what the community needs.”