Merced County Times Newspaper
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Local homeless personality reflects on Project Roomkey


Editor’s Note: The following profile is a preview of a special report series by the Merced County Times on the impact of COVID-19 on the Merced County population.


‘So it’s “Thank you Jesus,” but here you are suppose to have something that is going to make life easier, but it’s not. On the street, I knew what I had and what I didn’t have, and I dealt with that.’ 

— Monica Villa,
homeless resident receiving support from Project Roomkey


These days, Monica Villa can go from feeling blessed to feeling miserable in no time at all.

The 65-year-old woman was living homeless for more than a decade, but since last April she has been housed at the Merced Inn & Suites thanks to Project Roomkey.

The statewide program has helped shelter approximately 35,000 homeless people in thousands of hotel and motel rooms across California in an effort to protect human life during the COVID-19 pandemic, and minimize strain on health care system capacity.

However, Villa has been told her days living at the Inn are numbered. She could be out of there by the end of March.

She doesn’t seem to mind the prospect of leaving. She looked out her upstairs doorway just the other day and saw spots of blood and torn-up clothes in the parking lot pavement below.

“There are fights here all the time,” Villa says. “It doesn’t stop. And there’s no security. It’s just ridiculous.”

That coupled with loud noise, the smell of drugs, and the sight of criminal behavior has her missing the life she knows out on the streets of Merced.

Says Villa, “So it’s ‘Thank you Jesus,’ but here you are suppose to have something that is going to make life easier, but it’s not. On the street, I knew what I had and what I didn’t have, and I dealt with that.”

Villa admits she is not a typical homeless person or transient that Mercedians might see hanging around near the highway, or outside commercial centers, or on park lawns. She says she has never panhandled, but she has done plenty of recycling. She says she spends a lot of her time getting involved in the community and helping faith-based groups hand out food to the impoverished. She calls herself a homeless advocate. And she’s pretty well known in many corners of town. The cops know her. The firefighters know her. The EMTs. Even the mayor of Merced, and the entire City Council, know her on a first-name basis. That’s because Villa has ran for political office more than once, and she’s been quite vocal during meetings at City Hall.

Nevertheless, she was out visiting a homeless camp last April when she ran into someone from the county’s Human Services Agency.

“They were signing people up for Project Roomy,” she recalls. “They asked us questions about our situations. Then they gave us a tote bag, and they said we could fill it up with whatever belongings we had, and then they would get us a room at the Inn.”

Villa was game, but on one condition: “I got to bring my dog,” she said.

Apparently they said that was OK, because for the last 10 months or so, Monica has been at the Inn with her American pit bull named “Dory-fish.”

At first she was thinking, “It was exciting ‘cause it was warm and my dog is safe. I can be here, shower, that’s cool. The lunches they gave us weren’t the best, but then I went out and got something where I can cook [a Crockpot] and after three months they said, ‘OK you are going to be here a little longer.’ So I got comfortable. Got my own blanket. Everything in this room is mine. You can see I got a stack of books. I set up a microwave. I thought this was my home for the moment.”

Villa says the Roomkey occupants actually had room service at first. Helpers would provide clean towels and sheets, and provide amenities like shampoo. And then all of that suddenly changed. And then the ice machine broke down.

“They said in the news that it costs them [Roomkey hotels] $2,100 per unit per month, and we don’t have the necessities. Are you kidding me?”

Villa says volunteers from the Merced County Rescue Mission and other groups do bring daily meals to the rooms, and that’s appreciated. Some of the occupants share the handouts.

Meanwhile, she says, Roomkey program occupants and others kept coming and going, and Villa started to feel unsafe.

“I ended up hurting my knee, and they wanted me to go downstairs. I said no way. I can’t move. Anyway there’s noise going on down there 24/7. Screaming, yelling and fighting. It’s just unreal.”

Monica says she is glad to have a room, but “I’m spending what little money I have trying to keep my food cold. Thank God I have an ice chest.”

She also misses “being social.”

“I feel repressed here,” Villa says. “There are plenty of homeless people still out there. They would rather be out there than here. … Some of them stop by my room and I try to feed them with what I have.”

After Villa was told about other shelter alternatives and possible housing opportunities when Project Roomkey ended, she recalls saying, “Well, you can give me a tent, and a stove to cook on, a month’s supply of propane, and dog food, and put me back on the streets. I wouldn’t have a problem with that. You can let me be. …

Villa looks around her cluttered hotel room, and adds: “And you better give me a three-day notice because I need to get all this stuff into a storage unit.”

Monica Villa and her dog Dory-Fish in the door frame of their hotel room.
Monica Villa and her dog Dory-Fish in the door frame of their hotel room from the Project Roomkey program.
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