NM town angles for solutions as more die out in the cold

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Posted: Dec 22, 2015 2:17 PM
NM town angles for solutions as more die out in the cold

GALLUP, N.M. (AP) — Carl Smith found his son's body in a cold, open field, not far from the Route 66 saloon where the 24-year-old had gone to drink. He was wearing a pair of lace-up boots, jeans and a familiar gray jacket.

"He and I were like one," said the 51-year-old social worker and recovering alcoholic. "When I found him, I knelt down and I said, 'Son, I'm really sorry.'"

The death of Calvin Smith, a Navajo jeweler, in October 2009 was part of a familiar pattern in the high-desert city of 22,000 people, where alcoholism and frigid winter temperatures produce a high number of deaths each year.

Fourteen people succumbed to the cold between October 2014 and April, setting the city's hypothermia death rate at 64 deaths for every 100,000 people last year, authorities said. The rate far outpaced the national average of about 0.5 hypothermia deaths per 100,000 people.

So far this cold season, at least four deaths in McKinley County, which includes Gallup, are being investigated as potential hypothermia cases, officials said.

Some residents say efforts are falling short, as state and local leaders have tried for years to find solutions that have proven elusive in a city where the unemployment rate is roughly twice the national average and public health funding for treatment centers has been inconsistent.

This year, officials have focused their hopes on a center that takes in people suspected of being intoxicated for up to 72 hours, though long-term funding remains uncertain.

"The city may think they're helping," said Brandon Benallie, who helps hand out coats to Gallup's homeless on weekends with a local faith-based coalition. "But it's a solution that they've been trying to implement since 20 years ago."

Gallup is best known for its Southwest and Navajo jewelry shops and as a former location for Hollywood westerns. Dozens of vintage, neon signs for restaurants and low-slung motels illuminate the city's main streets, throwbacks to a time when historic Route 66 brought a steady stream of cross-country travelers.

That era — from the 1930s to the early-1960s — also saw liquor establishments flourish. "One of the things that will never change in Gallup is the alcohol," Smith said. "The drinking, the liquor licenses aren't going away because they are how this city survives."

Gallup is just across the boundary of the Navajo Nation, where alcohol is banned, making it the closest and most convenient place for many on the reservation to buy beer, wine and liquor.

Casey Benally, a community service aide on patrol with the Gallup police, remembers when he had taken a woman in her late 30s to the city detox center just a couple nights before she was found dead, bundled up in a blue tarp and hidden amid knee-high grass near a Sonic drive-in in October.

"You see the numbers of people who passed away," said Kevin Foley, the executive director of Na'Nizhoozhi Center Inc., where day and night, police and workers like Benally bring Gallup's intoxicated to sober up. "We know them."

State Sen. George Munoz believes one of the solutions is the Na'Nizhoozhi Center, a nonprofit founded two decades ago to replace the city's drunk tank, which sent its overnighters back out on the streets each morning.

But NCI lacks sustainable funding, said Munoz, who has appealed for federal funds to U.S. Sens. Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall, both New Mexico Democrats.

Munoz also supported state legislation that would have targeted high-risk areas like McKinley for behavioral health funding. Gov. Susana Martinez vetoed it this year. She said she plans to allocate $1 million in health spending between two counties — one of them McKinley.

For years, NCI contracted under a city, county, Navajo government and Zuni Pueblo compact to run the detox center with federal funding and other revenue before it ran out of money to run the facility.

The Navajo government took over at the start of 2014 before announcing in September it would hand over control to the city.

As responsibility for the center's detox program transferred from one group to the next, Gallup endured one of its worst years for exposure deaths in years.

Now, inside the building operating since October under a short-term city contract with Foley, those held in large holding cells paced in circles until they're released.

"It's not right, keeping us behind these locked doors like this," a man yelled from the cell.

Later that same night, another man called police asking to be picked up as temperatures dropped below freezing, willingly climbing into a van used for "ditch patrols." That's the name for regular checks that send service aides out overnight scouring boulders, tunnels and other sites for anyone sleeping outside.

"You can't find all of them, but we'll check every ditch trying to save them," police Capt. Rick White said.

Gallup is surrounded by open spaces and rocky cliffs, with dozens of windblown fields and gullies scattered between neighborhoods. Often, the unique landscape can keep victims — like Smith's son — hidden from those hoping to find them.

As someone who once drifted between stays in run-down motels and nights along local ditches, Smith knows Gallup's streets and outskirts well. His hunch on exactly where to look for his son came more than a week after he had gone missing and others began fearing the worst.

"When I found him, I asked for his forgiveness ... And I made a promise to work for our people on the streets here," Smith said. "We need to do more now."

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Follow Mary Hudetz on Twitter at http://twitter.com/marymhudetz. Her work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/journalist/mary-hudetz.