FLAGSTAFF -- The vans go out daily, patrolling the streets of a northwestern New Mexico city looking for people who are too intoxicated to take care of themselves.
Found around supermarkets and liquor stores, under bridges, in arroyos and atop mesas, their destination has been the Na'Nizhoozi Center for services that include detoxification, shelter, counseling and treatment. that serves 24,000 people a year, the majority of whom are American Indian, is nearing the end of its more than 20-year presence in Gallup.
Without any new funding, the center is expected to close at the end of the month, prompting concern among police that alcohol-related violent crime and deaths could increase and hospital emergency rooms could become overwhelmed in a city that has made great strides in reducing public intoxication.
"We certainly are holding on to the last minute," NCI program manager Jay Azua said Thursday. "We're hoping the entities involved for the creation of NCI, which have kind of separated themselves, will come back together and re-establish the collective effort that created NCI in the first place."
Public intoxication isn't a crime in New Mexico, but state law allows alcohol impaired people to be held in protective custody at a treatment center for up to three days.
The largest social detoxification center in New Mexico, NCI uses a mix of traditional and western methods to treat people. Many of the clients are transients from the surrounding American Indian reservations where the sale and consumption of alcohol is prohibited. About 40 percent of clients are from Arizona, Azua said.
The Navajo Nation, Zuni Pueblo, Gallup and McKinley County banded together in the early 1990s to create NCI to address alcoholism in the city. Before it opened, authorities would pick up some 50,000 people per year from the streets, leaving them in a concrete room at the jail to sober up, said John Allen, Gallup's deputy police chief.
NCI has provided a more humane way of dealing with intoxicated people by serving them a meal, giving them a place to sleep and providing counseling, Allen said.
"That I think has made a significant change," he said. "We've seen the numbers in recent years basically plateau."
NCI already has cut back on services, still allowing vans that operate around the clock to drop off people for detoxification services. But with its revenues cut by nearly 60 percent since fiscal year 2006 and no new revenue projected this year, the remaining services will cease, Azua said. The center would need $1.2 million a year to operate basic services alone, he said.
Federal funding that had been dedicated to NCI was redirected in 2011, and funding from the Navajo Nation also has decreased. A request for emergency funding from the state of New Mexico was vetoed earlier this year.
The Navajo Nation stepped forward with a $300,000 check in December but now requires that facilities providing similar services in reservation border towns request funding in a competitive process, tribal spokesman Erny Zah said.
"We used to be able to help NCI greatly, but now we're at a point where budget cutbacks are beginning to trickle down to our level and now we don't have the availability of funds, and the need hasn't gone down," Zah said. "We have to be a little more cognizant of how and where we're going to put out money."
He pleaded with border towns to have compassion, understanding and patience with Navajos struggling with alcoholism and who have lost the power to choose whether or not to drink.
"Some of them are that far gone. They can't function without a drink," said Zah, who has been sober for more than 11 years. "If anyone knew that type of hopeless feeling, I guarantee they would change their viewpoints, because it's a sad, sad place to be."
The city and county have a transition plan, which must be approved by both governments, to continue the protective custody and detoxification services for at least six months before issuing bids for more extensive services. The transition is expected to happen immediately or within days of NCI's closure, McKinley County attorney Doug Decker said.
"Having a place to safely take these people to get over indulging is a great thing, (but) that's just one little aspect of it," he said. "Eventually, you would hope to get them the treatment they need to overcome that. NCI has played a big role in that."
Any gap in services likely would be absorbed by hospital emergency rooms, officials said.
A spokeswoman for the federal Indian Health Services, which oversees the Gallup Indian Medical Center, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Ina Burmeister, a spokeswoman for the Rehoboth McKinley Christian Hospital, said the hospital is preparing for a possible influx. She said each patient's blood-alcohol level and toxicity will be monitored to determine the best possible care.
"Obviously our priority is going to be taking care of those emergencies that come in," she said.