CASA GRANDE — Mannie Bowler attended the opening of the new CGHELPS Resource Center last Monday.
Then she said goodbye. It was her final day as executive director of United Way of Pinal County. She has a new job. She’s now director of the Round Valley Boys & Girls Club. It provides after-school programs for youths ages 5 to 18. Kids come from Eagar and nearby towns in southern Apache County.
Apache County, in northeastern Arizona, is the poorest in the state, she said. Sounds like a challenge, one she has the resume for.
When it comes to the poor, you might say Bowler has street cred. The Casa Grande resource center is dedicated to helping the poorest of the poor, the homeless and the near homeless. A tireless advocate for the homeless, Bowler had a hand in its creation.
I spoke to her just outside the center. We sat in a small plaza overlooking Peart Park. The Community Action Human Resources Agency runs the center. United Way of Pinal County has offices here as well.
Bowler, 52, spent five years with Pinal County United Way, 3½ as executive director. Her work took in Apache Junction. She soon learned it had its own homeless crisis. She decided to get a closer look and began to help out at the local soup kitchen.
Every Monday, she’d set up a table and offer services and referrals. And she listened.
“They started talking to me, and bringing their issues to me,” Bowler said.
The issues were things most of us take for granted.
“Having access to a phone,” Bowler said. “They need a driver’s license, and they need a physical address.”
By definition, the homeless don’t have an address. It’s a Catch 22. Bowler calls it a gap in services.
What’s more, the homeless often lose what possessions they have. They simply can’t secure them. Everything from clothes to IDs. And without an ID, they often can’t get basic services. Telephones included.
She’d help get people new IDs. Starting from scratch, it sometimes took weeks. Even months.
In Apache Junction, Bowler came to understand the barriers facing the homeless. In Casa Grande, she got a chance to do something more — with a lot of help from the community.
It started with a Lennon-meets-McCartney moment, about 2½ years ago. It was then that Bowler met Rina Rien, director of Casa Grande Main Street, a nonprofit that promotes downtown culture and commerce.
Bowler heard Rien speak at a meeting of the Emergency Assistance Ministry, made up of faith-based groups and churches. As the name suggests, EAM provides emergency help for people in need.
Rien spoke about the problem of homelessness in downtown Casa Grande.
“I approached her after the meeting,” Bowler said. “I said, ‘You know what, let’s talk.’ Out of that was born the Casa Grande Chronic Homeless Coalition.”
The coalition met monthly. Bowler led the meetings. On the ground level, the coalition created cooling stations. Places where the homeless could drop in and cool off. And get some water. On site and for the road.
The coalition created a foldout flyer with a list of services — the Street Sheet. It had information on where people could go for help with food, clothing and housing. And where to find cooling centers.
Led by Bowler, the coalition reached out to City Hall. Mayor Craig McFarland obliged and set up a city task force on the homeless. The resource center grew out of Bowler’s drive and the city’s participation. But it really was an all-hands-on-deck effort, Bowler said.
Here’s a partial rundown of the players. The faith-based community. Mental health advocates. Casa Grande police. United Way. And, of course, CAHRA, which is staffing the resource center.
“This is a natural fit for them,” Bowler said.
CAHRA, a countywide nonprofit, offers help with rent and utilities. The center also will offer basic medical care, case management and GED classes. I learned all this from last Sunday’s write-up in the Dispatch.
United Way is settling in next door, under the same roof. Allen Villalobos, the new executive director, will pick up where Bowler left off. And carry on United Way’s good works. Bowler mentions a few programs from a big list. There are the literacy bags for kids, complete with sock puppets made by seniors and high school students. The annual Project Connect, which provides access to services and resources. In March, nearly 120 people met with representatives from 30 agencies. And, of course, United Way’s work with the homeless.
“I’m really, really, really going to miss it,” she said. “But I’m on to a new journey.”
This journey should cut down on her travel time. Bowler commuted almost daily from Apache Junction to her office in Casa Grande. It was a one-hour drive. Now it’s 10 minutes from her home in Eagar to the Round Valley Boys & Girls Club.
And she can spend more time with her husband, Tony. For the past five years, they’ve had a long-distance marriage. He works at the Springerville Generating Station as an engineer for Tucson Electric Power. Springerville’s a short hop from Eagar. They’ll no longer be separated by day jobs miles apart.
Bowler says her new job ties into her work for the homeless at United Way. She sees it as an ounce of prevention. At the Boys & Girls Club, kids will get the boost they need to help stay on track. In school. In life. The kind of boost that could keep them off the street — now and for years to come.
Reach contributing writer Bill Coates at firstname.lastname@example.org.