Street Vendors Face Harassment Despite Laws In Place Designed To Protect Them

By Violeta Rocha

Jose Rios is an owner of one of the many street vendors in Los Angeles. He has a fruit cart with mixed fruit and his famous coconut combined with tajin, lime juice, and salt that sells for $8 each. On a good day, he makes about $400. However these days, he is concerned by the harassment he gets for just doing his job. 

“I used to work sporting events because you can easily make $500-$600 a day, but you are constantly in fear if your cart is going to get [confiscated] and end up being worse for the people that don’t have papers,” said Rios.

Days before the Superbowl took place in Los Angeles (L.A.), there were initial reports circulating on social media that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) would patrol the streets of Inglewood’s SoFi Stadium.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) confirmed that ICE and 500 other DHS personnel would support the Super Bowl to keep everyone safe and secure. ICE made it clear that they would identify and combat human trafficking and prepare to target counterfeit smuggling merchandise from vendors.

There is no doubt with events of this magnitude, there would be double or triple the law enforcement and safety surrounding these sporting events. Street vendors have argued that it’s an intimidation tactic to deter street vendors from selling their goods.

Street vendors are an essential part of L.A.’s street culture, providing affordable food to locals and tourists. According to estimates by the Bureau of Street Services, the city of L.A. is home to roughly 50,000 street vending operations, and it has an estimated revenue of $504 million annually.

Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times

For many decades, L.A. was one of the cities in the United States where street vending was illegal. The people, best known as Angelenos, have been criminalized for many years just for trying to make a living.

According to a UCLA School of Law Community Economic Development Clinic report and the nonprofit law firm Public Counsel, the system failed to make laws to protect street vendors. Their “poor designed food laws” have made it illegal to sell food or merchandise.

The Safe Sidewalk Vending Act (Senate Bill 946) decriminalizes street vending and legalizes it  under certain conditions. After three years, the report states, “most sidewalk food vendors remain exposed to the daily threat of ticketing, harassment, and fines, which perpetuate an unending cycle of criminalization and poverty.” 

“The problem stems from a tangled web of state, county, and city laws that deprive sidewalk vendors of access to permits to legally sell food, denying vendor dreams of entrepreneurialism while hurting all Angelenos by undermining the food safety principles the laws claim to protect,” said Scott Cummings, a co-author of the report. “Even as local officials make it easier for brick-and-mortar restaurants to conduct outdoor dining, we see them continue to vigorously enforce a system that operates as a de facto ban on L.A.’s celebrated street food.” 

The report details that the sidewalk vendor cart must meet minimum requirements designed for larger food trucks. Only 165 residents out of 10,000 were able to receive their permits. Still, the first newly approved tamale cart priced at $7,500 is hoping to be a game-changer to the city of L.A. and vendors across the state, but not everyone can afford it.

Street vendors need to go through hell and back to obtain a permit from L.A. County. They must steer through multiple offices before they secure a load of prerequisite documents without any adequate help. The disturbing part is the documents are only in English, and vendors are Spanish speakers for the most part.

Irma Mendoza, 52, has been a street vendor in L.A. for the last 14 years. She is one of the many street vendors that rely on sporting events for sales. She has a few family members and friends that are in the business. She understands that she jeopardizes her sales by sidewalk vending as an unpermitted vendor, but sometimes you must take the risk to put food on the table.

“What hurts the most is that we are treated like criminals when all we are doing is working to support our families,” stated Mendoza. “We want to work without being worried whether our food trucks are going to be confiscated. We should be able to work without fear.”

Just recently, as of Feb. 23, 2022, a motion was heard in the L.A. City Council Public Works Committee that intends to create new criminal penalties for violating The Americans with Disability Act (ADA), especially for a person required to possess a city permit to be on the sidewalk.

Some city council members are trying to go around the state laws that protect street vendors. This proposal re-introduces misdemeanors for sidewalk vending. It will ultimately be up to officers' discretion to decide if vendors willfully violate ADA. This can hurt street vendors and put them back on being harassed by law enforcement. Criminal citations harm the most vulnerable, undocumented vendors, put them at a higher risk of deportation.

“California’s sidewalk vendors are hard-working entrepreneurs who have stood up and spoken out against arrests and harassment. But as the title of this new report says, we really do have unfinished business,” said Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara, who authored the Safe Sidewalk Vending Act (Senate Bill 946) as a member of the California State Senate in 2018. “We haven’t seen enough proactive support for vendors who still face nearly impossible obstacles to get legalized. We need continued reform at the state and local level to make sure that our vendors get the same opportunity at success as other small businesses.


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