• Mary MacCarthy

Retired restaurant owner calls for more affordable housing, internet access

Updated: May 15, 2020

Lynn Smith is a self-described "Jill of all trades" who was a pioneer of the organic food movement in Denver: she was the founding owner of the city's first garden-to-table restaurant, Kate’s on 35th Avenue in Park Hill.

Lynn's volunteer work includes tireless advocacy for the elderly, and for access to affordable housing

Since selling the restaurant in 2011, she has devoted most of her time to volunteering, and has also held a number of full-time and part-time jobs to help make ends meet.

Lynn is among the millions of Americans who - even before the pandemic - were barely getting by; yet her focus is not on her own struggles, but on people in her community who are struggle even more than she is.

HOW ARE YOU GETTING BY? I’m grateful for the time and health that allow me to do my volunteer efforts. These include being a legislative advocate for the American Association of Retired Persons, and being an usher at Mile Hi Church. I also sing with the Bennie L. Williams Spiritual Voices choir, and go to Zumba classes six days a week.

My income from social security and my pension are not quite enough for even the modest lifestyle at my apartment complex in Denver, Windsor Gardens. My daughter - who is currently a high school music teacher in Vietnam - sends me money every month. And so does my sister, when she is able to do so.

Around me, I see many people aged 55 and over who are struggling. I don’t call them ‘retirees,’ because many of them are still working. Some of them do want to work, but for most of them it’s because their retirement income is inadequate.

The main issue is the cost of housing. In Denver, people with two incomes in the household seem to do OK financially. If you’re living on your own in Denver, however, your monthly income has to be at least $3000 to qualify for even a $1200 rental - which is almost impossible to find!

What we need is a skilled matching service for housemates. Co-housing would also help solve the loneliness and isolation issues that are a major issue in the 55-plus population. Among the 48 condominiums in my building, 41 are single occupants. As for me, I continue to look for permanent, part-time work, but I find that close to impossible since applying for a job requires skilled access to a computer. These days, all applications must be done online. Here in Colorado, a third of minority households and 38% of people 55 and over report they don’t have reliable access to the internet. I see this as a civil rights issue - because both of these are protected classes. I disagree with the argument that "people can fill out job applications on the computer at their local library." That’s a myth. Each application takes an average of 40 minutes to complete, and people needing jobs are going to fill out at least three or four applications before giving up that long-awaited spot at a library computer. I’ve been at the Denver Public Library in the morning, and seen dozens of people waiting outside to use the computers! I was researching this the other day - trying to find out if places that are advertising for employees would be willing to provide paper applications. I called one of the pizza companies that advertised on TV that they’re "hiring now," and asked if they would be willing to accept paper applications, submitted in person. The company rep initially said "no," but gave me a different number to call, someone further up in their administration. I spent 4-5 hours being sent from pillar to post, before getting through to a secretary of one of the administrators. She took down all my contact information, but it’s been several days and no one has called me back.

What am I doing with my days during the shutdown? I spend a lot of time with my two dogs, and I bring groceries to people who are unable to get out, and to people who are struggling financially. I bring brown rice and fresh vegetables, casseroles and lasagna-type dishes - foods that are healthy and filling. In my building, most people have extended family that live in the area. Still, I call or slip notes under doors to check on people and make sure they are doing OK. So many people want to help others in their community, and they don’t know how. We need an efficient way of making what I call "close-by connections," so we can know who needs help, and how we can help them. Like a “connect-a neighbor program," matching families in need with a trusted source nearby, someone they can reach out to who can step in right away. This needs to be more than an online program, because - again - not everyone has the internet access or computer skills to know how to reach out or respond online.

Lynn's restaurant, Kate's on 35th, was in this refurbished Victorian home in Denver's historic Park Hill neighborhood

With the pandemic, one of the worst things I’ve seen was how the government handled shutting down all bars and restaurants without notice, and without provision for income. I put myself through college and graduate school working for restaurants, before owning and managing a restaurant myself for thirty long years. So I know that restaurants run on tight margins, and that most of their employees live hand-to mouth. The government should have had checks in hand to pay these restaurant and bar workers BEFORE sending them out the door. I understand, of course, the decision to shut down food establishments due to the pandemic - but the government has money in its coffers, as well as the authority to move it around in an emergency.

As for the $1200 that the Federal government says it's sending to every American, I think it’s unconscionable that the only people I know who have received it are people who don’t need it: well-to-do couples with substantial savings.

The first round of stimulus checks should have gone to the people who lost their jobs due to the pandemic. That would have been a genuine stimulus check - enabling citizens AND the economy to survive the first shutdowns, by getting money straight to the people who suddenly and unexpectedly lost their income.

That check can mean life or death to people who lost their jobs. Plus, a lot of the instantly unemployed are the ones who are also suddenly taking care of young children who are no longer in school. How are these people supposed to get by?

The way the government handled it was nothing short of cruel.

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