Sacramento rent hike led state worker retiree to become homeless. Now she’s a success story

Yolanda Villanueva vividly remembers the first night she slept outdoors.

The 60-year-old Sacramento native had lived at her midtown apartment for six years, but with her rent increasing from $1,125 to $1,500 per month she could no longer afford to live there.

On June 17, it was time to go. Her friends helped her place her belongings in storage and showed her how to set up the tent she bought years ago for recreational camping.

She ate dinner at Simon’s Bar & Cafe, then got on a bus and rode it to the Sacramento City College area. She found a quiet spot in Land Park under some trees where she thought she wouldn’t be bothered, and set up her tent. She barely slept a wink. Instead, she lay awake, thinking.

How did this happen?

About 10 years earlier, Villanueva left her job at the state Department of Consumer Affairs’ Bureau of Automotive Repair after she was diagnosed with bone cancer.

Her doctor estimated she had 10 years to live, so she chose to receive her pension benefits in higher amounts, but for a shorter amount of time. She was receiving about $3,700 a month for her pension, social security and disability, she said.

But now that she’s outlived that projection, the income figure has dropped to about $1,600 a month, which was not enough to pay the increased rent.

“I had my life together. How did I get here?” Villanueva said. “I cried a lot. I prayed a lot. I don’t know how these people do it.”

Villanueva is a caretaker. For years, she helped homeless people in her neighborhood. She rode her bike around midtown, feeding the homeless. Every Monday, she’d buy a pizza at Pete’s Pizza (it was on sale that day) and give it to a group of homeless young people who stayed nearby on L Street. When she could afford it, she bought them clothes at Goodwill and blankets at IKEA.

She was known as many in the neighborhood as “Tia Yo.”

She was also sending checks to her grandchildren who are in college, even while she was homeless.

“I want them to be successful,” she said. “I don’t want them to end up like me.”

Last summer, for the first time, it was time to ask for help herself.

After sleeping outdoors for about three months, she got calls from Volunteers of America and a staff member with Sacramento Assemblyman Kevin McCarty’s office telling her she got a spot in the Capitol Park Hotel shelter. It was just in time.

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After three months sleeping outside, Yolanda Villanueva, 60, received a spot in the Capitol Park Hotel homeless shelter. She stands in her room on Sept. 5, 2019. About a week and a half later, she was able to move to the YWCA Contra Costa in midtown.

“It rained two times that week,” she said. “I finally got to sleep in a bed again.”

About a week and a half later, she got an even better call – she was getting an apartment, just a block away from her old one.

An Uber was on the way, but she didn’t want to wait. She walked eight blocks there.

“I said, ‘I’m not waiting, I’m walking fast!’” she said.

She now pays $400 a month to live in a studio at YWCA Contra Costa in midtown, a facility for single women. Her studio is smaller than the apartment she had earlier this year, and she has to share a bathroom and kitchen with the other women who live there, but she’s not complaining. She put colorful bedding and a “Dia de los Muertos” light up pillow on her bed, and is thinking of how she wants to decorate the white wall next to her bed.

Villanueva’s is an early success story as the city moves forward with a plan to open hundreds of new shelter beds with rehousing services in the coming months to get thousands off the streets.

Since officials started moving homeless people in to the vacant rooms at the Capitol Park Hotel, about 110 homeless men and women have stayed there, and two have so far found housing, according to the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency, which oversees the project. It was originally proposed by Councilman Steve Hansen in response to a call to action from Mayor Darrell Steinberg.

“Thanks to Capitol Park, 110 people are now off the streets, most of them from downtown,” Steinberg said in a statement. ”They will have a comfortable bed indoors, meals and services to help them stabilize their lives and obtain permanent housing, rather than living outside in unsafe and unhealthy conditions as the winter cold arrives. I have no doubt that Yolanda’s successful move out of homelessness will be replicated scores of times during the facility’s operation as a Rehousing Shelter.”

The shelter, which will stay open until the end of October 2020, is the second large shelter with services the city has opened. The first shelter, at Railroad Drive in north Sacramento, served 658 people during the 17 months it was open. Of those, 164 people found permanent housing, and another 100 were placed in temporary housing, including other shelters or board and care facilities.

Steinberg said he was pleased with those results, but wants the future shelters to house even more, with people staying an average of six months before finding housing.

The city plans to open a 100-bed shelter for women and children in Meadowview this winter, along with a shelter for adults near North Oak Park this spring.

Villanueva has always been sympathetic to the homeless, but never thought she would become homeless herself. Looking back on it now, the experience has given her a new perspective.

“Something happens to all these people, not just drugs and alcohol,” Villanueva said. “There’s something else going on in our city.”

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Theresa Clift covers Sacramento City Hall. Before joining The Bee in 2018, she worked as a local government reporter for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, the Daily Press in Virginia and the Wausau Daily Herald in Wisconsin. She grew up in Michigan and graduated from Central Michigan University.