The stretch of the historic Old Route 66 that runs through the middle of Albuquerque is now known as Central Avenue. As you drive along this four-lane avenue at almost any time of the day or night, one of the sights that catches your eye are the groups of homeless Indian people milling around with seemingly nothing to do or nowhere to go.
If you explore the history of homelessness in Albuquerque you will find that many of the Native people living on the streets and in the alleys of New Mexico’s largest city come from the surrounding pueblos and reservations, although others either grew up in the city or have migrated from out-of- state reservations.
There are several explanations for why the homeless problem has become an epidemic up and down Old Route 66. One reason you hear from social workers and the homeless, or former homeless people who made it off the street, is that they were exiled from their tribal communities because they were LGBT or they were ostracized because of alcohol and drug abuse and/or criminal acts that they committed.
Many of the homeless Natives in Albuquerque come here looking for better opportunities than their home communities have to offer. They are looking for employment and/or educational prospects that didn’t materialize, and they end up drawn towards other Natives in their similar situation.
“The problem is growing,” said Gordon Yawakia, Prevention Coordinator for the Albuquerque Indian Center from the Zuni Pueblo. “The main thing they’re coming to the city for is prosperity – looking for jobs, looking for opportunity and thinking that Albuquerque has that. There are challenges getting jobs around here. A lot of the challenge is [a lack of] education. They’re looking for prosperity, but you can’t get it overnight.”
“They’re looking for prosperity, but you can’t get it overnight.”
“The Governor and the Mayor have cut off the homeless programs,” said Darla, who is known on the streets as “Dallas” because she’s a Dallas Cowboys fan. She is Jicarilla Apache from Dulce, New Mexico, and said she’s been on and off the streets for the last 20 years. “The only people that really help us are the Christians – the churches. They help us more than anybody else.”
“Back in the day, 10 years ago, there were programs to help with addiction or alcoholism,” said Nighthawk Little Elk, a half Navajo and half Pueblo from New Mexico. He was incarcerated for 10 years in the federal prison system after being convicted for extortion. After being released a week ago he is again living on Central. “Now that I’ve come back – there’s nothing. There’s no shoulder to lean on. I feel like I’ve been pushed aside.”
The drug and alcohol abuse problems that exist among these groups are clearly noticeable if you’ve ever simply driven Central. There is also a problem with physical violence and sexual abuse and even prostitution. Many of the homeless people get trapped in the judicial system which only exacerbates their problems and keeps them from getting off the streets.
“It’s tough to live out on the streets,” said Little Elk, aka Ghost. “We make a little money from panhandling, drawing, arts and crafts, pottery, beadwork; our Native American traditions that were passed down, that’s how we do it. But a lot of people criticize us because we live on the streets and maybe we’re not up to society’s standards. We are outcasts and it’s just sad.”
Yawakia left Zuni pueblo to seek better education opportunities, ended up homeless at one time himself, but eventually found good employment in Albuquerque and has made it his home. He is also an electrical mechanical engineer at the State Fairgrounds working on heating and cooling maintenance.
“Luckily we as Natives take care of each other,” said Yawakia. “These people that we serve here at the center are experiencing poverty. Yes we are experiencing domestic violence. Yes we do have drinking problems and heroin addiction – it’s on the streets. But we choose to give these people a second chance.
“A lot of people look down on us and say ‘we are an eyesore.’ They say we’re bad, we drink, we smoke, we do drugs and a lot of it is true – but people deserve a second chance. It might be their only chance.”