If government shuts down, food cart owners fear losses

WASHINGTON - Many of this city's 300 food cart owners -- purveyors of hot dogs, chips and sodas to the capital's hungry government and private workers -- are immigrants from the Middle East or Africa who arrived in search of the American dream.

Many started families and moved to the suburbs with earnings from the carts they haul onto sidewalks every morning and take away every night. Now the possibility of a federal government shutdown Tuesday threatens the dreams they've worked so hard to obtain.

Aziz Sadozai, 48, operates his cart for 14 hours daily at Ninth and G streets NW. His business relies on employees headed to the city's main library, the FBI headquarters and a local electric company's offices.

"If the government shuts down, then my business shuts down," Sadozai said, who lives in Woodbridge, Va.

Sadozai has owned his hot dog stand for more than 20 years. He said he used to make $200 a day; now he barely makes $80. The financial crisis in 2008 and 2009 slowed business to a near standstill, but in the past two years it was gradually recovering.

While setting up his cart about 8:30 one morning this week, Sadozai angrily threw his hands up in the air. "In two years if things don't change, I'll go back to my home country, Afghanistan," he said.

The government could shut down Tuesday if Congress doesn't agree on a budget. That's also the opening day for D.C. street vendors to apply for newly required $1,200, two-year site permits.

But Nick Majett, director of the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, said vendors would face additional problems with a government shutdown. Because of its unusual relationship with the federal government, the District government previously has had to halt nonessential services when the federal government closed.

"If we were shut down, then people like the vendors would not be licensed and could not work," Majett said.

Mayor Vincent C. Gray on Wednesday deemed all District government employees to be essential. As a result, their offices would remain open.

For many owners, this new regulation is not a surprise. But for Almaz Tadesse, a 50-year-old from Ethiopia, the cost is a burden.

"I don't even make a $100 a day," said Tadesse, who lives in New Carrollton, Md.

For 14 years, she has parked her cart at Judiciary Square, near the local courthouse, a D.C. government building and the U.S. Department of Labor. In the past, Tadesse said she could pay for her license because she would sell out, refilling her cart three or four times a day.

But the city's burgeoning food-truck scene -- large, kitchen-equipped mobile vehicles that sell cupcakes, lobster rolls, pizza and more -- has cut into her business. Now she refills her cart once a week. "I don't know if it's worth it anymore," Tadesse said.

For 23 years, Meraf Belay has parked her cart at the intersection of 12th and E streets NW, near a big law firm. It's a block from Pennsylvania Avenue, where there are dozens of government agencies.

Customers, who know the 50-year-old by name, waved to her one recent morning as she set up. A native of Eritrea, in the Horn of Africa, she lives in Silver Spring, Md., and owns the cart with her husband.

"I don't have another job," Belay said. "If the government shuts down, my business is dead."

(Reach reporter Zahra Farah at zahra.farah@shns.com. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.shns.com.)

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