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‘You Try to Live Like Me’ – Looking to Understand ABQ’s Homeless Natives

Albuquerque is a land of violence. Colonization and histories of brutality reverberate well into the present, especially against the indigenous.
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Albuquerque is a land of violence. Spanish and Anglo colonization and histories of brutality reverberate well into the present, especially against the city's indigenous population.

Last July, three young men beat to death two Navajo homeless men, Allison "Cowboy" Gorman and Kee "Rabbit" Thompson, leaving both unrecognizable after smashing in their heads with cinder blocks and a metal post. While in custody, the young men also confessed to having attacked as many as 50 other homeless people in the last year.

RELATED: Teens Murder for Fun; Smash Heads of Homeless Men With Cinder Blocks

This culture of violence permeates all corners of the city, even its police department. Since 2010 the Albuquerque Police Department (APD) shot 40 people, killing 27. In March, APD came under scrutiny when what should have been an illegal camping citation turned into 40 officers, some armed with military-grade assault rifles, inciting a three hour-long standoff with mentally ill homeless man James Boyd—ending with APD fatally shooting Boyd 3 times, once in the back.

Nine days later, APD shot and killed Native man Alfred Redwine after he allegedly threatened two girls with a gun and then pointed it at his head when police arrived.

In light of mass protests against APD violence, the Department of Justice (DOJ) released a report in April after several years of investigating APD's use of force. The report concludes that a majority of the 20 deadly officer involved shootings from 2009 to 2012 "were unconstitutional"; APD often uses less lethal force—such as tasers, mace, restraining, and kicking and punching—in an "unconstitutional manner"; and a significant amount of force is used against people with mental illness and in crisis. The report cites "systemic deficiencies in oversight, training, and policy" that perpetuates APD's "culture of aggression." Use of force, deadly and non-lethal, the report highlights, is often rewarded in which APD administration "tolerates a culture that is hostile to community partnerships."

In response to the DOJ report, APD Chief Gordon Eden promoted officer Timothy Gonterman to oversee changes in supervision and excessive use of force. In 2002, Gonterman burned off part of a homeless man's ear with a stun gun. In 2006, a federal jury found Gonterman used "excessive force."

On Albuquerque's streets, however, violence and death are an everyday reality for Native homeless and poor.

RELATED: Mayor Richard J. Berry: Albuquerque Is Dangerous for Homeless Natives

"I was born in a state of oppression," Bailey Gillreath (Laguna Pueblo) said. Gillreath is a veteran of Albuquerque streets. In response to rampant police and community violence against the homeless, he and several Native people set up "sober camps," where alcohol is banned and people stand watch at night. "We do it sober because it's our lives," he said.

"It's a secret society," he explained, saying how Native homeless lives are invisible and marginalized to the city's concerns. Even in light of efforts to address Native homelessness after a recent partnership between the Navajo Nation and the Albuquerque Mayor's Office, Gillreath remains unconvinced of the initiative's sincerity and effectiveness.

According to a recent report released by the city on homelessness, Natives made up 13 percent of the homeless population while making up only 4.6 of the city's population. Native homeless are homeless for longer periods of time; visit the emergency room almost twice as much; violently attacked more often; more likely to be female; less likely to have served prison time; and less likely to have access to health coverage, the report stated.

About 55,000 Native people live in Albuquerque from 391 federally recognized American Indian Nations, according to Census figures.

"It's an all nations issue not just Navajo," Gillreath said. "Mayor Berry, he don't give a shit," noting the Mayor's absence at the memorials of Gorman and Thompson, the Navajo men brutally murdered in July.

Kiutus Tecumseh (Winnebago), President of the Albuquerque Indian Center (AIC) Board of Directors, said many of the problems facing Native poor and homeless have only intensified under Mayor Berry and Governor Susanna Martinez's administrations. AIC provides many of the services for Native poor and homeless, but the denial of the city and state to fund the center left workers unpaid for over two months this summer.

"The city of Albuquerque doesn't care for the AIC," Tecumseh said, noting Mayor Berry has never stepped foot in the AIC despite several invitations for a visit. He also said stereotypes about tribal casino wealth play a major factor in city's denial of funds to the center.

In one report recently released by the Mayor's office, solutions to address homelessness include "Leveraging the highly-profitable local Native American casinos" and using already existing programs and private donations without guaranteeing increased city funding or services. The initiative's intention reads like a business plan: "to decrease the cost burden to the community for these high-risk and high-cost service-utilizing individuals, while aiming to improve their quality of life, productivity, and cost-bearing issues."

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Gordon Yawakia (Zuni Pueblo), the AIC Prevention Coordinator, said APD routinely uses the AIC to help identify homeless Natives killed on the streets, since the center provides mail services. Many are killed by hit and runs or are beaten left to die in the cold or from exposure, “several a week, sometimes more,” he said.

Most deaths go unreported by local media and investigations by APD are never conducted.

Difficulties in identifying the bodies of homeless Natives has something to do with the many stories that APD confiscates and destroys their identification documents to prevent people from buying alcohol, Yawakia speculated.

Nick Estes

Gordon Yawakia has gone over two months without pay at the Albuquerque Indian Center. The center is the heart of the Native community in the International District. Because funding issues and lack of city commitment to keep AIC's doors open, the center's future remains in limbo.

Lack of proper identification makes an already difficult life next to impossible, especially to gain access to health and social services. Many of the tribal enrollment offices are too far away and there is only one primary care health service for American Indians, First Nations Community Healthsource.

Ronaldo Thompson (Navajo), Homeless Outreach Collaborator at First Nations, said his program tries with limited funding to provide health, social, housing, and counseling services to Native homeless and poor.

According to a report by the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, urban Native healthcare in Albuquerque has become “dire”—noting that 78 percent of American Indians live off-reservation but only 1 percent of the IHS annual budget is designated for urban clinical facilities. The report concludes, “New Mexico’s Urban Indian population has the worst access to healthcare of any community in the United States.”

A report conducted by the National Indian Youth Council found that primary health care funding from the federal government for Albuquerque’s Native population totals a mere $16 per capita. National IHS per capita spending totals $2,849, which pales in comparison to the national average per capita spending on health insurance of $8,895. According to a report by the Pew Charitable Trust, the state of New Mexico spends $7,316 per capita for prisoner health care.

Thompson attributes this failure of funding as contributing to cycles of violence and neglect that disproportionately affects Native people. The daily life of homeless Native women, he said is much worse, many saying they are frequent victims of rapes. “Their mentality is,” he said, “‘Why should I report it?’ Nothing is ever done.”

There is a distrust of APD as well. Maria Left Hand Bull (Lakota) said APD broke her right shoulder during an altercation forcing her to learn to write and use her left hand. “I got no use in it anymore,” she said.

Left Hand Bull said that homeless services focus mainly on men and that there are no women’s shelters, except for domestic violence victims. “I’m tired of the sidewalk,” she said.

Social worker Stevie Maestas (Acoma Pueblo) said Native homeless and poor “are not looked as part of the community.” “It’s a slow death,” she said, speaking about the combination of poverty, general disregard from the community, and lack of social and health services.

In her book Indigenous Albuquerque, American Indian studies scholar Myla Vincenti-Carpio argues that while present-day Albuquerque has always been and continues to be Indigenous land, "Indigenous history and world views have been erased from the city's consciousness and historical memory." What remains, she writes, "is that in the popular imagination [American Indians] are not recognized as residents of the City of Albuquerque or as citizens of the state and nation.”

While city officials and the Navajo Nation make news for partnerships to address the myriad of issues and challenges facing Native homeless and poor, many feel like city, state, federal, and tribal officials don’t care and understand their problems.

“You try to live like me, motherfucker,” Bailey Gillreath said, frustrated at the lack of changes and empty promises he has seen over the years. His sober campmates were recently arrested by APD for outstanding warrants, leaving him by himself and fearful of vigilante and police violence. Gillreath sees brief moments of attention on these issues that quickly fizzle out because people fail to understand the complexity and seriousness of poverty and homelessness.

“People that want to help don’t know our side,” he said.