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As Public Health Prepares for Vending Crackdown, Street Vendors Call for the Cancellation of Rents

To mark International Workers' Day, L.A. street vendors rallied to decry the extent to which some of the most vulnerable Angelenos have been left to fend for themselves during a disaster and to underscore the importance of their inclusion in recovery planning.

After caravaning from Boyle Heights, the San Fernando Valley, Hollywood, Westlake, and South Central they pulled up in front of the Department of Public Works (below) around noon on Friday. There, they railed against discrimination, criminalization, and the failure of the city to keep its promises to vendors, called for vending permit fees to be refunded and for cash assistance to be offered, and demanded rents be cancelled because, with no work and no assistance, there was no way they could pay it or shoulder that debt going forward.

Los Angeles' street vendors were among the first to be acutely impacted by the city's shutdown nearly two months ago. Averaging just over $10,000 a year in income, most have little savings to fall back on and few places they can turn for help.

They were also one of the first groups city council took a swing at during its first COVID-19 meeting on March 17, with Seventh District councilmember Monica Rodríguez moving to put a moratorium on vending by painting vendors as “an immense public hazard” that posed a threat to other vulnerable people. [She later amended her remarks to clarify she did not mean to enact a full moratorium, but rather to have health protocols and permit compliance stringently enforced. But the barriers built into the public health permitting process have thus far rendered food vending permits inaccessible to all but the most well-resourced of vendors, making Rodriguez' motion an effective moratorium.]

Then, Thursday night, during county supervisor Hilda Solis' COVID-19 briefing, the Department of Public Health (DPH) stepped forward to again paint vendors as a threat.

No mention was made of the vital access to fresh food, fruits, and vegetables vendors are providing at a moment when public transit is being scaled back in communities where grocery stores are still few and far between. And no mention was made of the shortcomings found in the permitting system - only 29 of thousands of vendors have been permitted thus far - or of any steps being taken to mitigate them.

Instead, vendors were reminded that they were prohibited from vending without a permit and the public was asked to refrain from patronizing vendors.

But then DPH went one step farther and explicitly asked Angelenos to narc on vendors working without a permit.

Doing so could subject a vendor - again, someone who is making much less than $10,000 a year now that the streets are empty - to a $1,000 fine, the potential confiscation of their livelihoods, and exposure to the risk of deportation, should they be undocumented, as Rudy Espinoza, executive director of Inclusive Action for the City and Doug Smith, a public interest attorney with Public Counsel, tweeted in response to the briefing.

Screen Shot 2020-05-01 at 2.57.26 PM

Vendors, of course, are among those who most want to keep themselves and their customers safe. They can't afford not to.

They have no access to sick pay or other forms of worker assistance, have limited access to health care, and often live in overcrowded and/or multigenerational spaces, meaning that bringing home the virus could devastate their family and their housemates.

They just want to work, to work safely, to have both their contributions and their struggles recognized, and to be supported when they can't support themselves, especially with regard to housing. While the city, state, and county have all taken steps to limit evictions during the emergency and, in the case of L.A., grant renters a year to pay back rent owed, without rental assistance or rent forgiveness, many fear they could still find themselves on the streets a few months from now.

It's why they took to the streets Friday.

As vendor Ruth explains below, she and her husband, a jornalero, pay $1700 a month in rent. Even when times are good, they effectively live day to day, she says. And her daughter's medications are not always covered by insurance, further straining their budget. She recorded the message below, posted to the Los Angeles Street Vendor Campaign facebook page, to lend her voice to the call for the cancellation of both rents and mortgages because she's not sure how she will ever be able to repay the three months' worth of rent she knows she will owe by the time the emergency passes.

We are honest people who did not come here to be a burden, she says of herself and her husband in Spanish. They had come here to work, she continues, but have found themselves in real need of assistance in this difficult time.

Vendors have gotten some timely financial help from Inclusive Action, Public Counsel, and the East L.A. Community Corporation, three key members of the Los Angeles Street Vendor Campaign, who have raised over $200,000 via a street vendor emergency gofundme. Those donations have allowed them to distribute nearly 400 debit cards loaded with $400.

But there are tens of thousands of vendors across the city and county who, like Ruth, are falling deep into debt and won't be able to access that or other forms of official assistance.

The emergency has flipped the lives of youth like 21-year-old Giovanni P. upside down.

First he'd had to stop visiting his biological mother, who has spent 20 years in a coma since suffering a seizure when he was a year old. He was able to get updates on how she was doing from the hospital, he said, but it wasn't the same as seeing her.

Then the burden of keeping his family housed had fallen squarely on his thin shoulders.

The combination of the two - plus being cooped up when he wasn't working - had left him stressed out.

He felt lucky to have picked up a telemarketing job downtown about a month and a half ago, especially after being out of work for four months, he said. And under normal circumstances, $13.50 an hour might have been an OK paycheck. But both his parents were out of work, thanks to COVID-19.

Giovanni P., 21, commutes in by bus from El Monte to a telemarketing job in downtown L.A. He feels lucky to have gotten the job when he did a month and a half ago - especially because his $13.50/hour salary is the only income his family has right now. Adding to the stress is his inability to visit his biological mother, who fell into a coma after suffering a seizure when Giovanni was just one year old. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
Giovanni P., 21, commutes in by bus from El Monte to a telemarketing job in downtown L.A. He feels lucky to have gotten the job when he did a month and a half ago - especially because his $13.50/hour salary is the only income his family has right now. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

Taxes and the $1,500 his family pays in rent will take a hefty chunk out of the $2,160 he will earn this month, leaving little to cover food and necessities for the four adults living in the home.

His mother (the woman who raised him), a food vendor, had been scrambling to earn some money on the side by cooking meals to sell to friends and family, he said. But with everyone in his El Monte community in the same boat as his immediate family, that venture hadn't taken off. His father, a carpenter, was also out of work, but couldn't get unemployment assistance or access the stimulus money because of his immigration status.

Governor Gavin Newsom's proposed immigrant relief fund aiming at offering some financial assistance to the undocumented would be a welcome source of cash, assuming they can successfully navigate the system to access the funds. [And assuming the lawsuit filed last week does not hinder the fund's roll out.] But the application process hasn't opened yet.

Until Giovanni has that money in hand, and probably even then, he can't afford to get sick or lose his job.

It seemed to be going well so far, he said. No one at work appeared to be sick, if the trainers' effort to limit the spread of the disease by taking the forehead temperature of the trainees was anything to go by. [Unfortunately, it may not be.] But it's still a lot of responsibility for him to carry. And he doesn't know how long this burden will be his. Should they end up not being able to pay their rent this month or next, a $13.50/hr. salary will never be enough to dig his family out of that ditch.

With rent due May 1, families like his across L.A. are making grim calculations about what they will be able to afford this month. It was why 60-year-old Caridad Vásquez had been moved to organize the street vendors' protest, as she explains in Spanish below.

No work meant there was no money for rent - plain and simple. Without more explicit city and agency support - the cancellation of rents, the refunding of permit fees, or cash assistance - vendors were at risk of losing everything.

"I have so much stress!" Vásquez says, clearly emotional as the video ends. "Why? Because I am not working and I don't have the means to pay my rent!"

For more information on the Los Angeles Street Vendor Campaign, visit their website. Donate to the street vendor emergency relief fund here.

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