Community Services Director Malissa Buzan and Tim Gonzales of Community Bridges share space at the county offices to enhance interorganizational communication. Photos by Patti Daley
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Homeless in Gila County

It’s difficult to count the homeless in Gila County. Best efforts put the number at about 50 on any given day.

They are hidden in plain sight,” says Barbara Kannegaard, founder of the Homeless Coalition, a nonprofit grassroots effort to ensure fellow humans have food, water, and a place to sleep. 

She estimates there are more. “Many don’t want to be counted.”

Though less than one-tenth of one percent of the people in Gila County are currently homeless, the number is growing. The Gila County Community Action Program, which helps people gain self-sufficiency, used to see just a few people a month but now sees three to six people daily.

Malissa Buzan, director of Community Services for Gila County, views each homeless person as a human life. The root causes of homelessness are complex and tenacious, she says. Trauma. Addiction. Generational poverty.

“Homelessness is a unique situation,” she says, “as unique as you and I.”

Within Gila County, it’s known that substance abuse, mental health, and homelessness are interlinked. It is not always clear which is cause and effect or how best to help. While Community Services staff can help people get resources and follow a budget, behavioral agencies such as Community Bridges and SW Behavioral Health are needed to help with mental health and substance abuse issues.

“We’re kind of like a jigsaw puzzle,” says Buzan. “You can only see the full picture if everyone’s at the table.”

Buzan serves on a dozen committees and boards, including Gila House and 2nd Chance.

Supervisors Cline and Humphrey encouraged Buzan to unite the various pieces and form the Gila County Homeless Task Force. Those at the table include behavioral health organizations, healthcare providers, social services, law enforcement, superintendents, community action, public housing, Gila House, the Homeless Coalition, and Payson’s coalition for homeless vets. 

“We tried to get realtors on board but didn’t have a lot of luck,” Kannegaard says.

Barbara Kannegaard, Secretary of the Homeless Task Force and founder of the Homeless Coalition, believes everybody needs to do their part.

The Gila County Homeless Task Force is assisted by the Arizona Department of Housing to provide a continuum of care. A staff position was added to coordinate the task force and its subcommittees and to address the growing number of homeless families. The task force has seen an increase in homeless families from one or two per week to four or five per week.

“We’re more organized and working together more effectively,” Buzan says. 

Rather than multiple organizations “doing the same thing in small bites,” the task force coordinates tools, resources, and processes to help more people in need. Together they housed 22 people in the past year and a half, despite the growing housing crisis. 

“That’s a lot!” she says. “We’re doing everything we can. We are getting very creative.” 

Who Are the Homeless?

“They are our neighbors,” Buzan says. “They live among us.”

Those without homes surf on couches or hang out at Walmart. Many are addicted. Almost all of the unhoused have additional issues. There’s barely a block or area of town, Buzan says, where there isn’t someone living or walking by who is addicted or homeless. 

Alcoholism used to be the prevailing addiction. Now it’s opioids. 

“Addiction has touched every single one of us,” says Buzan.

Only one out of five are homeless simply because they lost their job and didn’t have a backup.

“If we catch them early on, we have a better chance of getting them out of that situation,” says Kannegaard. “The longer they’ve been homeless, the less receptive they are to getting out of their situation.”

The Department of Economic Security offers a Rapid Rehousing program that covers three months of full rent and then gradually reduces the amount until the person becomes self-sufficient. This has led to some success stories, including folks housed short-term in local motels.  

“I wouldn’t necessarily want to live there,” Buzan admits, “but it was warm, a place to lay their heads, take a shower.”

A Senior Tsunami

With the housing crisis worsening, more families are finding themselves homeless. Then there are the many people living on the edge.

“There’s a senior tsunami going on,” says Buzan. “More than one-third of the homeless individuals seeking help are seniors.”

Those concerned agree that the increase in newly homeless is caused by the lack of housing. Basic economics supply versus demand. When RV parks in Payson get sold and upgraded or flooded in Globelike Little Acres more folks are left unhoused. Transitional housing and Gila House have been full for months. 

“Landlords are being picky, which is good business,” says Buzan. “There are landlords that are greedy.”

As a housing navigator for Community Bridges, Tim Gonzales looks for those in need and is currently working on a database to track individual progress. He’s an active member of the Homeless Coalition and the Homeless Task Force, and has been given office space at the county offices to increase communication and efficiency.  

“I’ve always had a passion to help,” he says.

Every two weeks, a subcommittee reviews the list of people who need housing. At times the list is 60 people long, with only one house available. 

I might be bailing water in a sinking ship, but my teaspoon is now a cup,” Buzan says. “We are helping more people. I think it’s important. Even if it’s one person.” 

Faith Community

“We can’t rise unless everyone rises,” Buzan says. “Government and elected officials have to make the hard choices, but it will not work if we don’t all step up.”

“It takes us all working together,” adds Kannegaard. “That’s what the Homeless Task Force is all about, everybody doing their part.”

In addition to founding the Homeless Coalition, Kannegaard serves as Secretary of the Homeless Task Force.

“I give it to the Lord,” she says. “I just do what needs to be done.”

The Homeless Coalition meets on the first and third Tuesday of every month at Divine Grace Presbyterian Church in Miami at 5:30 p.m. Everyone is welcome. Few show up.  

“You have to have a passion for taking care of people. Taking care of homeless people. It can be uncomfortable, scary, dangerous,” Kannegaard says.

The churches and religious organizations still outnumber the homeless people in Gila County, and several offer food pantries and water. St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, which funds the Homeless Coalition, opened a food pantry with a couple of refrigerators for perishables.

The food pantry serves both the homeless and those simply in need. “Some people are not homeless, but their monthly assistance runs out before the end of the month,” Kannegaard says.     

The church also funds a Transient Aid Program in cooperation with local police. Using a debit card, the Police Department can cover gas and lodging for individuals who are temporarily stuck and don’t have family in town.

The community donates to homeless programs faithfully, Kannegaard says. They give socks, sleeping bags, blankets, backpacks, water bottles. The late Jason Sanchez, a concerned citizen, would take the coat off his back and offer it to a person who was cold. Other individuals hand out food on the street or house strangers in a spare room.

“We do have a wonderful group of people in this community that have a heart,” Kannegaard says. “Certain people, yes they want to do their part.”

“It should be important to everyone,” Buzan says. “If only the stigma would go away.”

An unidentified person sleeps at the train depot bus stop in Globe.


  1. They ignore many

  2. So many people are disposed of who turn out to be worth their weight in gold as neighbors and friends, able to finally put their energy towards other things than survival once their housing is stable. Thank you Barbara and the other volunteers and staff who continue to work towards a more kind and just world.

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