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Blind Government Concession Stand Owners Face Bankruptcy after Government Shutdown

Posted on February 22, 2019 by Catholic Charities Admin  |  Share

Catholic Guild for the Blind Partners with Readers Digest to Bail Them Out

Kamal, who is completely blind, empties shelves filled with potato chips, sodas, breakfast snacks and more, tossing now-expired stock into the garbage with help from his sighted employee.  Kamal’s Café on the ground floor of Varick Street Immigration Court in downtown Manhattan had been this blind man’s one piece of good fortune for 18 years thanks to the New York State Business Enterprise Program that offers priority for blind vendors to operate food service facilities in federal and state buildings.  But his good luck ended when government employees furloughed from work for 34 days were not around to purchase his wares.  Not only did he lose income but also had to throw away $2,000 worth of now-expired stock when the shutdown ended. 

While January 25, 2019 marked the end of the longest government shutdown in U.S. history, the most vulnerable, including blind managers operating government concession stands, remain reeling. Kamal, who asked that his last name not be published, is one of several visually impaired concession stand owners working in federal buildings in New York State, one of tens of thousands of nongovernmental workers dependent on government contracts or employees not reimbursed for unwanted time off.  Many, scraping by through work at the bottom rungs of the economic ladder like Kamal, became economically devastated when the shutdown cut more than one-twelfth of their annual pay. They fell behind in rent, facing possible loss not only of their business but of their home as well.

“When nobody goes to work, nobody buys coffee; nobody buys anything,” Kamal said.  “So, the little guy like me gets hurt.”

For nearly two decades, even during the shutdown, Kamal left his Bronx apartment between 5 and 6 a.m., arriving in time to serve groggy government workers their first cup of coffee at 7 a.m. He closes shop when customers end their day, typically around 5 p.m. 

The Varick St. building remained open during the shutdown, as did his concession stand.    But nearly all staff in the building, AKA his buyers, had been furloughed. By the time the shutdown ended, he not only lost thousands of dollars in sales but also had to throw away once-fresh stock expired by the time customers returned. When new shipments arrived, all requiring payments C.O.D., he had no funds to replenish stock. 

Fortunately, New York State Commission for the Blind learned about the blind vendors’ predicament and reached out to Catholic Guild for the Blind for help and looped in  Reader’s Digest Partners for Sight, a grant maker that provides support to organizations working to improve the lives of blind and visually impaired individuals, for funding. A partnership formed. Catholic Charities Guild for the Blind is reaching out to concession stand owners, determining their losses and administering funds; Readers Digest Partners for Sight is footing the bill.

“They are a strong supporter of Catholic Charities Guild for the Blind and those we served,” said Guild for the Blind Director Judith Katzen. 

Already eight visually impaired BEP concession stand managers have been identified. They work in federal buildings including Immigration, IRS, DEA, and more spanning Brooklyn, Manhattan, Long Island and Buffalo.

“Nearly 40-percent people who are legally blind or visually impaired in the U.S. are unemployed,” Ms. Katzen said.  “Those, like Kamal, with concession stands are the lucky ones.  They had the rug pulled out from under them.  We’re glad we are able to put it back.”

Do you know someone blind or visually impaired who needs help? Contact Catholic Guild for the Blind