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Facing Near Total Loss of Customers During Pandemic, Street Vendors Need Relief

As street vendors struggle through the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown, activists are organizing to throw them a lifeline.

Elvira Sucasaca operates a Peruvian food stand in the Jackson Heights neighborhood of Queens, New York.

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Every weekend at 6 am, Elvira Sucasaca, along with her family, sets up their renowned Peruvian tamales street cart along the bustling Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights, Queens, New York, as they prepare for the breakfast rush. Usually, like clockwork, a hungry drove of loyal regulars, craving savory tamales and sweet picarones — deep-fried donuts made of sweet potatoes and squash — forms around the cart with the thunderous roar of the elevated train passing overhead. The cart is so popular, people often order on the phone and pick up their food from the comfort of their car. Yet, since the emergence of the COVID-19 crisis, the once-lively streets of Jackson Heights have become akin to a ghost town. In fact, the community, once famed for its diversity, has become more well-known as the epicenter of the epicenter. This has particularly hurt Sucasaca, who like many street vendors, is finding earning a living to be precarious at best.

“If you look at this block, it used to be full with other vendors,” said Sucasaca. “Lately though, many no longer come out because they are scared of getting sick and it’s hard to make money. We are the only ones out now, but we don’t know for how long.”

Street vendors, like Sucasaca, are one of a handful of workers in the informal economy who are especially vulnerable to the negative effects of the national shutdown. Many vendors are undocumented and dependent on cash payments, thus making them ineligible for federal programs like the Paycheck Protection Program, which will allocate nearly $350 billion in forgivable loans to small businesses under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

Georgina, an undocumented immigrant from Pueblo, Mexico, who declined to give her last name, has been selling her traditional pottery goods on the streets of Queens for 24 years. Without the supplementary income from vending, she will find it difficult to support her five kids. “If I didn’t have to come out in the street and sell I wouldn’t,” Georgina told Truthout. “But without any help, what else could I do?”

Many street vendors won’t be eligible to receive the CARES Act’s one-time $1,200 payments. Without adequate help, they will be forced to continue to work, putting themselves and the public at risk of falling ill with COVID-19.

“There are very few if any financial resources for street vendors, so we are seeing that street vendors are essentially being left out of city policy and emergency funding,” said Carina Kaufman-Gutierrez, deputy director of the Street Vendor Project, which provides legal help and advocates on behalf of street vendors in New York City. “Vendors are reporting sales drops of up to 80 percent, which is completely understandable because no one is out on the streets, but at the same time, that’s what vendors rely on for business,” Kaufman-Gutierrez said. “If there is no safety net for them to fall back on, they have to continue to vend.”

With the gap in resources for street vendors, the Street Vendor Project is calling for New York to provide emergency relief for all workers in the informal economy. Kaufman-Gutierrez says the demands are modest compared to the bailout many corporations received. “We are not asking for much other than ensuring that workers who are employed by food truck or cart owners, including undocumented workers, are eligible for any forthcoming relief funds,” Kaufman-Gutierrez said. “Help will look like granting opportunity for low-income sole proprietors of street vending businesses. Help will also look like waiving outstanding tickets that street vendors have been issued in 2020.”

In late March, New York City Council Members Margaret Chin and Carlos Menchaca openly called for increased protections ahead of the COVID-19 crisis. “Instead of spending time on squeezing money out of immigrant workers who are suffering from record losses and are increasingly worried about how they’ll put food on the table, our city needs to create a comprehensive relief package that is inclusive of all types of businesses and workers, and that includes street vendors,” Chin recently told Eater.

Yet, despite the support, Kaufman-Gutierrez feels it is far from enough. “There are a lot of calls for action from council members and senators who are strong supporters of street vendors, but we are not seeing anything from the mayor or the governor that really targets informal workers, gig workers and folks who are undocumented.”

In Los Angeles, the situation is even more dire. Unlike New York, in which street vending is legal and still permitted despite the shutdown, in March, the Los Angeles City Council passed an ordinance effectively banning street vending within the city limits. “We must take preventative measures seriously and help flatten the curve on the spread of this virus,” said Councilmember Monica Rodriguez. “Large public gatherings at restaurants and food establishments present a public health risk. It is in the public’s best interest to eliminate the congregation of people in all public spaces. Street vendors are no exception.”

The ban comes as a sharp reversal, as the city in January finally legalized street vending after over a 10-year campaign by local grassroots activists to overturn the nearly 100-year ban. In 2008, a coalition of social justice organizations formed the Legalize Street Vending Coalition to help draft legislation that would lift the estimated 50,000 street vendors in Los Angeles out of the shadow economy. With the renewed ban, the city should be responsible for providing resources for vendors, says Lyric Kelkar, senior associate of the nonprofit community development organization Inclusive Action for the City. “One thing we know is that many vendors are undocumented and are not going to have access to resources in the federal stimulus, so the city of L.A needs to be developing systems that ensure that these folks are getting the resources that they need,” Kelkar told Truthout.

As a temporary solution, Inclusive Action for the City has partnered with the East L.A Community Corporation and pro bono law firm Public Counsel to put together the Street Vendor Emergency Fund. According to Kelkar, they have already raised over $20,000 in individual donations, and the United Way Pandemic Relief Fund has donated an additional $50,000. Although they plan on distributing $400 debit cards to street vendors across the city, Kelkar believes without the city’s help, the funds her organization can provide will only be a temporary bandage. “The hard part is that even if we get $200,000, that might only help about 500 vendors of the estimated 50,000. So it’s a drop in the bucket,” Kelkar said. “We are trying to advocate for the city to develop similar funds for street vendors as well as undocumented folks outside of street vending.”

The idea of creating an excluded workers fund is also catching on in Washington, D.C. Many Languages One Voice, an immigrant-led organization based in D.C., has also been handing out over $10,000 worth of debit cards and direct cash payments to street vendors in their network. “Obviously, for people who are not covered under the federal stimulus package, we are pushing for the creation of an excluded workers fund so that undocumented workers can get relief right now,” said Megan Macreag, interim executive director of Many Languages One Voice. “There is a whole group of excluded workers who work in the informal economy that are going to fall through the cracks.”

Still, according to Macreag, at least 40 percent of vendor families they work with are undocumented and thus, not eligible for any federal relief. In early April, DC Jobs with Justice, a Washington, D.C.-based labor coalition, chastised the D.C Council in a blog post for not doing enough to help workers who are not eligible for federal help: “We are very disappointed that D.C. leaders have made no commitments to provide cash assistance to D.C. workers who are ineligible for unemployment benefits. As a result, the workers who built our restaurant, hospitality, construction, home care, and other industries are left with no government resources to turn to.”

To Macreag, street vendors are front-line heroes who should be given a hero’s honor. “At least half of the vendors we work with have stopped vending. Rather than be a vector, they turned into a container for the disease,” Macreag said. “These incredibly humble people voluntarily gave up their source of income to stop COVID. If that’s not altruism, I don’t know what is.”

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