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)