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Native Americans in New Mexico fall victim to fraudulent sober living homes

Thomas Cody, executive director of the Navajo Nation Division of Social Services, explains what tribal leaders are doing to find and get care for members now being displaced by scores of illegitimate sober living homes, during a news conference in Phoenix on May 19, 2023
Anita Snow
Thomas Cody, executive director of the Navajo Nation Division of Social Services, explains what tribal leaders are doing to find and get care for members now being displaced by scores of illegitimate sober living homes, during a news conference in Phoenix on May 19, 2023

For months, Native Americans have been targeted in fraudulent sobriety programs based in Arizona. The Albuquerque Journal's Elise Kaplan recently reported that Native Americans living on the streets in Albuquerque are being approached by people promising help getting sober, only to abandon them. Kaplan spoke to KUNM reporter Alice Fordham about the fraud, which is being investigated by the FBI.

ELISE KAPLAN I started hearing about this from some people who do outreach on the streets in Albuquerque. So what I did is I just went down to the International District in southeast Albuquerque, and just started talking to people and seeing what they'd seen. It is mainly targeting Native Americans, so going up to them and seeing what their experiences have been, what they'd seen, what their friends had seen. Some people didn't want to talk. But those who had had experiences, did want to talk about it and had been approached by these vans and did know about this and did want to share their experiences.

KUNM What did they have to say? You mentioned the vans. What are the vans doing? How is this affecting that community, that group of people?

KAPLAN It seems like the vans pull up next to them, or somebody gets out and comes up to them and says, "Hey, do you want to come with us to Arizona? Do you want to get sober? Do you want to…we'll pay you," even. And the people I talked to did kind of want to get sober. They didn't love living on the streets, they're not happy about being addicted to the substances they're addicted to. But they did feel like there are some red flags in this situation. One guy I talked to had been in rehab before and he knew that you're not supposed to go straight to a sober living home, you should detox first. He said they even offered him something to help him along the way, which he felt was kind of a red flag. So yeah, the particular men I talked to, did not end up going. But one had had some friends who did go and kind of reported back that it was not a good situation for them.

KUNM And so what were you able to find out about what these homes are doing? What's the exact mechanics of the scam?

KAPLAN So the FBI had put out a press release a couple of months ago about it, it seems like they bring people to these homes, and I'm using the word home very loosely, it can also be a motel, or like an apartment or something, it's not really a group home. And they bring them there, and then they get Medicaid benefits through Arizona's Medicaid program, or food stamps or something like that. So they're getting paid to provide these services. But they're not behavioral health specialists. They're not providing any kind of therapy. They're not providing any kind of substance abuse treatment or mental health treatment, but they are getting benefits for providing those things. And then once the people get signed up for those services, often because they're not providing the services at these homes, these people either leave or they get kicked out or they're stranded in Arizona and have to find their way back to New Mexico or wherever they came from.

KUNM Did you get a feel for the scale of the problem? Like how many people these scams are affecting?

KAPLAN I think a lot like I think it is affecting a lot of people. Just in Gallup alone, the best numbers I was able to get was from Gallup Police Department, they'd had 32 people go to these homes over the past 18 months, and of those 14 people are still missing. So some had returned, but not all of them. And that's just in Gallup. I think in Albuquerque, it's you know, it's probably much more. It's also a problem all over Arizona, all over the Navajo Nation. It seems like it's an Arizona problem that's kind of bleeding into New Mexico and also affecting New Mexico residents.

KUNM And are any measures being taken to stop this happening?

KAPLAN The New Mexico State Legislature and the Arizona State Legislature each tried to pass a bill that would basically require group homes to notify family members of patients that the people were there. But those bills both failed. And some advocates — I've talked to some people who work in this in this realm felt like that wasn't really the right solution. Because sometimes you don't want your family to know you're in rehab, or maybe you're trying to escape a toxic environment. So that seemed like it was a solution, but maybe not the best solution. Definitely the Navajo Nation is very aware of this. I think there's task forces looking for people. The Gallup Police Department told me about posting on social media, but also going and just handing out flyers to people to say, watch out for these things. Just doing street outreach themselves to try to make people aware of it and not get themselves into these situations.

Since we recorded this interview, Navajo leaders have also announced an operation called Rainbow Bridge to find and help hundreds of tribal members in Arizona who may have been subject to this fraud. 

Alice Fordham joined the news team in 2022 after a career as an international correspondent, reporting for NPR from the Middle East and later Latin America and Europe. She also worked as a podcast producer for The Economist among other outlets, and tries to meld a love of sound and storytelling with solid reporting on the community. She grew up in the U.K. and has a small jar of Marmite in her kitchen for emergencies.
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