Route 66 News

Gallup’s anti-panhandling campaign comes under fire

The Navajo community is criticizing a campaign in Gallup, New Mexico, that discourages tourists — including those on Route 66 — from giving money to panhandlers, reported Indian Country Today.

In April, a coalition of city officials, church, business, and community groups rolled out the 90-day “Change In My Heart, Not In My Pocket”campaign to encourage people to “have compassion to say ‘No’ to panhandlers.” Giving money, the group’s press release states, enables substance abuse and harms the tourist economy. The group plans to step-up policing, educate businesses on trespassing and loitering laws, and increase donations to substance abuse treatment and homeless services.

That message sparked controversy. Many saw “panhandlers” as a misnomer for “Natives” and “Navajos” that didn’t address the city’s liquor economy, high rates of poverty, and economic dependence on Native business. […]

At the first public meeting, Jeremy Yazzie, a Navajo student at UNM-Gallup, described the make-up of the campaign’s proponents: “It was an all white male group who wanted to push the [Native] panhandlers away from Gallup and make it more tourist-friendly and put a big red bow on Gallup.”

You can read more about the Gallup campaign here. Some excerpts from the news release:

Group member Bill Lee says, “Rather than giving a dollar randomly to people who will likely use it to worsen their condition, we are asking people to instead make a thoughtful contribution to something like the community food pantry. And when a panhandler asks me for money, I will simply tell them  ‘no’ and direct them to the charity I contribute to.” […]

Group member Kevin Menapace says, “We need the whole community to be together on this. If we can collectively turn off the flow of money to panhandlers, everyone will benefit.” […]

The campaign has other components as well, which include increased police enforcement, help from local veterans that have agreed to assist shoppers by being a “safe” presence, education to local businesses on loitering and trespass laws, as well as an initiative of extra hospitality and courtesy for tourists.

I understand what Gallup is trying to do, and I can attest to the panhandlers in the city — Indian and non-Indian, I should add — can get pushy.

But something about the campaign rubs me the wrong way. From my background, discouraging folks from giving a few coins or a dollar to a poor person seems profoundly un-Christian, or inhumane. And the notion that all panhandlers are going to use the money for booze or drugs is highly presumptive and simplistic.

And Yazzie’s criticism that the group apparently didn’t enlist Navajos before launching the campaign seems spot-on. If you seem to be targeting a specific group in an anti-panhandling effort, you’d better have a few members from that group to oversee it, at least.

Ultimately, the campaign smacks of coming from those who, to quote one of my favorite writers, “can not bear the agony of looking their country in the eye.” For centuries, the country called Native Americans savages, subhuman and slurs too vile to recount here. Its government embarked on a campaign of forced removals, forced assimilation and genocide against them. After the country came to its senses 300 years later and ended the abuse, it wonders why Native Americans suffer from poverty, suicide and substance abuse. And, yes, the parallels to African-Americans are not lost on me.

If people want to reject or help panhandlers, that’s fine — let it be an individual or case-by-case choice. But don’t roll out a campaign that targets a specific group without acknowledging and addressing the roots of the problems.

(Image of Gallup, New Mexico, by Wolfgang Staudt via Flickr)

9 thoughts on “Gallup’s anti-panhandling campaign comes under fire

  1. Steve Davis

    Being on the streets, and being Indian, yes Indian, is a big problem in this country.,,.., One the tribes really overlook… do you see them driving around the community in vans, checking on their people…? No! People who eventually either drink themselves to death, or wind up in a nursing home. They come, sometimes in pairs or with family and children, looking for the city life, a change.. When they find that elusive, they turn to an old friend, booze.
    From there, it is a never ending rollercoaster.
    I have seen the issues in Gallup first hand. I commend those who put their foot down on panhandling, as that does cut the flow of funds to get to the liquor store.
    For others, that need a food handout, there are plenty of other options. Surely Gallup has these in place. Somewhere to get a meal or two a day, and shower and get some clean clothing.
    Most cities in the US have the same issues, but Gallup and it’s proximity to a large Reservation, has a production line. and it’s not very productive.

    1. Ron Warnick Post author

      Part of the problem, I suspect, is the Navajos were one of the very last holdouts on casinos, until recently. Other tribes that have allowed them have greatly expanded their health care. Now that the money is flowing into the Navajo tribe, maybe it can do something substantive about alcoholism. Then again, the Navajos have some complicated social traditions that might prevent some of that from happening. We’ll see.

      1. Steve Davis

        ALL Indians are entitled to the same health care from the IHS.. Indian Health Service, a branch of our Federal System, it provides free health care to Indians, spouses and dependents. Regardless of what the tribe “provides” from other revenues such as the scourge of casinos all over this land. Just call the IHS in your area and TRY to get help for a supposed desparate tribal member… It’s quite impossible and not at all acceptable.

        If the panhandlers were not enough distraction, if you happened in to one of the nice Rt. 66 motels, in Gallup, you might be surprised by loud crashing noises in the middle of the night, as one of the BNSF railroads switching yards, is right across the road in West Gallup. You want to avoid this area at all costs.

  2. Dan Imming

    Gallup has ALREADY LOST.

    We make the trip to the west and back four to six times per year. We now avoid Gallup at ALL costs! Calling the panhandlers in Gallup “pushy” grossly understates the (Gallup) problem. On our last trip through Gallup on Route 66 (though we didn’t know it at the time) we were panhandled FIVE times – at that was just at the gas station and fast food joint. We never made it to the Route 66 motel we’d booked, we just kept on going to Holbrook, AZ and we haven’t looked back since.

    This isn’t an anti-Indian rant, but to quote one of my favorite actor’s lines, “Just the facts ma’am, just the facts.”

    While others may have had differing experiences in Gallup, our final visit was unpleasant enough to speak to the city leadership with our wallet – and skip the whole place, gas food and lodging too. YMMV.

  3. Scott Sheehan

    I spend a lot of time in Detroit, a city with its own panhandling problem. The panhandlers in Gallup aren’t just aggressive, they’re downright predatory. My GF and I were walking across a parking lot at night to shoot some sign pics. A group of two guys and a girl were paralleling us when one guy broke off and approached us. He was drunk, and still drinking out of a glass of something when he started walking with us next to my GF. He offered tourist info and I told him to leave, repeatedly. He got agitated and stopped in front of us and said “You look rich, give me ten dollars.” I felt very threatened and slowly reached back and placed my hand on my gun. He took a step back while his two friends began screaming at him to get back over where they were. He swore at us and returned to his pals.

    We returned to the El Rancho already feeling uncomfortable about our stay in Gallup. The next morning I saw a guy begging in the parking lot. As I was taking pics of the El Rancho’s sign I lost sight of him. He waited till I was almost at the road. The guy literally popped up between two cars and started asking for money. He was following me around, trying to stay out of sight. Stuff like that made us say “Forget Gallup, we got our sign pics, no need to come back.” That’s my attitude and a lot of travelers share it. Who can blame the city for trying to do something about the problem?

  4. salparadise

    Don’t understand why someone would feel threatened enough by a drunk to go for their weapon. Guess we all have different fear levels. If you check the Gallup police records you’ll that there is hardly any violence between panhandlers and others. But, they are pushy and if you’ve never been approached that way you might worry a bit. I figure if you were so worried about getting hit up for some dough that you were ready to draw your weapon then maybe, since you were responsible for the care and safety of innocents, that it might have been a better idea to move on. I’ve been going to Gallup since the 70’s. Back then the problem with drunks was really bad. Many of them were run over on the street and caused all sorts of problems. They also contributed to the rapid downfall of the Gallup area as tourists avoided it. Only Mr. Ortega bringing back the El Rancho (the place the guy was trying to take a picture) started Gallup back on the road to recovery.

    The problem in Gallup goes way back. It’s a social-economic issue and not something that will just ‘go away’ by refusing to give money to panhandlers. In reality, that only makes things worse as the panhandlers will turn to other ways to get money for their booze or drugs. Being broke certainly limits ones mobility, and most live in the area anyway, so they just aren’t going to ‘go away’.

    Just reading the story, and having some idea of what Gallup can be like, set off every bell and whistle for racial insensitivity I could muster. It was as if they totally avoided bringing the Tribes into the deal, and it certainly appeared to be one of those enlightened ‘white man solution’ to the problem. As you noted (Ron) ‘panhandler’ is more than likely ‘code’ for Indian. And, those who decided to go public with it figured they were real smooth by bypassing the tribes.

    In the city we call it homelessness, but out there most people have some place to at least crash and sleep. The problem there has always been a long history of now work, cultural adjustment issues and hard to beat addiction. New Mexico has the highest per capa rate of addiction in the US. Since most of the state is rural the problem doesn’t present itself to the public very often. Gallup is an example of such a place, and as you can see it has a profound affect on tourists. But, the white man solution is typical, and really sad, because it goes nowhere in actually helping anyone. Christian charity be damned, just let them rot, but not before flashing them your weapon and giving them directions to the nearest shelter or soup kitchen/pantry.

    To those folks, your kindness is just plain inspiring. It’s that kind of concern for others that makes me very concerned about the direction our country is heading. Where some old harmless drunk disturbs the status quo so much that the only solution is to deny a handout it really shows just how limited our concern for others really is. The drunks aren’t going away, and your solution to that problem ensures that it will not get better, either.

    1. Scott Sheehan

      Really? That situation doesn’t sound threatening to you? An intoxicated guy wouldn’t stop harassing my GF and I even after I told him to walk away several times. He stepped in front of us, stopped our forward progression and demanded money. This was 11:00 at night in the middle of a deserted parking lot with nobody else around but two of his friends. That wouldn’t heighten your defenses? Yeah right..

      I didn’t draw on the guy, I simply moved my hand to the spot I carry. That and his friends screaming was enough to get him to back off. At least you can just walk past the panhandlers in a Detroit and ignore them. They don’t chase you down like the ones in Gallup.

  5. Steve Davis

    Perhaps a better solution, would be for them to wear signs, or have this on a t shirt.. Lubricate a drunk, give a buck!

    Drunkenness is a big problem in nearly every city in the US. Indians come off the Reservation and into Gallup, because they have been conditioned to knowing they can get an easy fix from the tourists there.

    If that source dries up, they’ll have to find something else, sure! Like working!

    An aggressive panhandler, that needs a drink badly, can be a scary individual… If you didn’t have the street savvy to speak to one in this condition, you could get badly hurt as Mr. Sheehan mentioned. The panhandler, thought he had Sheehan figured out to have a few bucks, and if he wouldn’t give freely, it could be taken from him…

    I’ve given plenty of ” Christian” handouts, over the years, but it took me some time to see that I was not helping them by giving to continue their habit. The real Christian thing to do, if you care about their life, is to refuse them.

    Ultimately, like other communities, Gallup will find they can’t stop them from panhandling. It’s one of our freedoms, so some attorney will tell them….. They can require a costly permit, but that won’t stop those that can get the bucks together… We have tag team panhandlers at all our major Interstate highway intersections here in OKC…most, now “permitted” It’s a very bad reflection on the community.

  6. Pingback: 'Blood money' in Gallup - Route 66 News

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