By Danielle Krolewicz | Photo by Jesse Borrell
If you’ve ever walked past the Buell Theatre, you’ve likely seen Jon Lonardo standing outside. A Denver VOICE vendor since October 2013, Jon inherited the corner from a friend and has been vending there ever since.
Originally from Rhode Island, Jon moved to Denver in 1991 after the collapse of the Rhode Island Share and Deposit Indemnity Corporation. The crash of the private fund, which insured many of the state’s banks and credit unions, left $1 billion in deposits frozen and crippled the state’s economy. Jon was collecting unemployment, but it wasn’t enough to get by given the limited resources for people struggling with homelessness at the time. “[There were] no services in Rhode Island, no food banks, just one shelter,” said Jon; so, he made the decision to leave.
Jon settled on Denver because jobs were plentiful and rent was cheap. He found work as a laser operator, an industrial welder and a pipe fitter, and then as a convenience store clerk. During this time, he developed cataracts in both eyes.
“It’s tough to hold down a job when you are legally blind,” said Jon. However, becoming legally blind was the only way Jon could get the surgery he needed to correct his vision. By 2003, he was out of a job and homeless, but able to get the corrective surgery.
Although his eyes have recovered, Jon still experiences physical ailments that limit him from steady employment. Due to arthritis in his feet, it is difficult and painful for him to stand for long periods of time. Luckily, there is a cement block outside the theatre where Jon can rest throughout the day. “Everybody teases me, but I get to sit down all day long.” Still, Jon is able to vend about five days a week.
“With this job I meet the nicer side of a lot of people,” said Jon. One particular instance of kindness he experienced came last Christmas, when a woman shopping in the area asked where he was going to stay during the holidays. Jon answered honestly that he would hopefully be staying in the shelter. The woman left but returned shortly thereafter with an envelope containing enough money for Jon to stay in a hotel from Christmas to New Years.
“I was totally shocked,” said Jon. “I’ve never had anything like that happen before. It was nice to have a roof over your head and not have to worry about getting in [to the shelter] for the night.” He’s met other kindnesses: actors exiting the theatre have greeted him, and several times he’s been offered tickets to shows. “Instead of sitting around the house all day, I get to talk to people all day long,” said Jon.
Due to Medicaid’s income restrictions, Jon is only able to earn ten percent of the federal poverty level. Otherwise, he risks losing his Medicaid benefits. “Being an independent contractor [with the VOICE] I can come and go, do what I gotta do, I don’t have anybody to answer to. It’s really a stress-less job,” said Jon. “I realize I can only make so much money, but it kind of empowers you to do what you want to do… if you didn’t have a good day it’s up to you, if you had a good day it’s up to you. It kind of restores a lot of things in you.”
Recently, Jon was offered an apartment through Denver’s Road Home and Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. However, the apartment was far from the resources of Denver, including food banks, day shelters that offer meals, and the spot where Jon vends the VOICE. “The only problem was location,” said Jon. “I could’ve had an apartment, but I wouldn’t have been able to eat,” said Jon. “The further you get away from downtown Denver, you don’t have any support.” Paired with transportation limitations, Jon made the decision to turn down the apartment and wait in hopes of one with a better location.
Jon is very thankful for the opportunity to get into an affordable housing program. “It takes away that hopelessness that you have when you feel like you’re going to be homeless forever,” said Jon. ■