Council candidate Villa used to speaking out as advocate for homeless in Merced

10/24/2013 10:00 PM

10/24/2013 10:57 PM

Monica Kay Villa may be most familiar as the woman who uses her full five minutes during the public forum at just about every City Council meeting, but now she’s decided she wants to be on the other side of the dais.

During much of her time in the public forum, the Merced City Council candidate speaks about issues that Merced’s homeless residents face. “I ended up moving out in a tent, meeting people, and started going to City Council (meetings) and started advocating,” the 58-year-old said.

Villa lives in a tent near where the Union Pacific railroad tracks cross Bear Creek on the western end of town. Born and raised in Atwater, Villa moved to Merced more than three years ago because she wanted to advocate for the homeless, she said.

She organized about a dozen of her peers to begin attending council meetings around the time that the city was working to close the Black Rascal Creek and Santa Fe Drive homeless camp in 2010.

She said she didn’t appreciate what she viewed as a cold response from the council. “The demeanor of council was definitely just, ‘You need to be gone, we don’t want you here,’ ” Villa said. “Dude, I was born and raised in this county.”

She said, however, that the No. 1 priority in her campaign is the young people of Merced. Villa said it’s important for the city to offer youth entertainment, and that includes better access to the arts.

Villa pointed to the Merced Multicultural Arts Center, the Merced County Library and the Merced County Courthouse Museum as places where the city could offer such programs.

Villa said she would consider implementing regular meetings with young people beyond the proposed youth council. She said the City Council could visit a different school in the city every three months for such a meeting, for example.

She also said she’d like to implement some education for drivers, so they would better respect bicyclists’ safety.

The 1973 Atwater High graduate studied at Merced College. She also worked many years as a cocktail waitress and trainer at restaurants and fast-food eateries, including some time on military bases in Okinawa, Japan.

Some of her time, she said, goes to volunteering to clean up parks or graffiti, and to tutor people on reading.

A life-changing event for Villa happened in 2006, she said, when her 25-year-old son Jonathon Conlee committed suicide. He suffered from depression, Villa said. She stopped working shortly after his death.

“I took some time out, and since then, it’s been a little hard to get back into the workforce,” said Villa, who is unemployed and describes herself as a “homemaker.”

Villa also helped organize a suicide prevention and awareness walk called “Out of Darkness” with her daughter Carrie Van Winkle in the years following her son’s suicide. She expressed a desire to start the event up again.

She also said Merced could attract development if parts of its population were friendlier. The city has its share of discrimination against minorities – whether they be people of color, the homeless or have a sexual orientation other than straight – she said.

“It’s very underlying,” she said. “I think some people see it (who) come from other places.”

As a public official, Villa said, she could help to educate Merced residents about people are different from themselves .

“I think (the) City Council needs to step up and go, ‘OK, how do we get the community together,’ ” Villa said. “That is their responsibility.”

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