NYC Promised Street Vendors More Permits. Instead, They’re Being Harassed by the NYPD
“It feels like they pick on us because they have nothing better to do.”
1:55 PM EDT on September 29, 2022
Eliana Jaramillo has been a street vendor for 38 years, selling water, sodas, and food to tourists and businesspeople mostly in Midtown Manhattan. For all of those years, she's been waiting for a license from the City, which would legalize the job she's been doing since she immigrated to the United States from Bolivia.
"The authorities just don't listen to us," she told Hell Gate in Spanish.
On Thursday, Jaramillo took to the streets with hundreds of other street vendors who are tired of waiting for the City to keep its promise to issue more street vendor licenses, and to stop the NYPD's renewed harassment of street vendors under the Adams administration.
"We all need to work, that's why we do this," said Jaramillo. "But now the corrupt cops are handing out tickets we can't begin to pay. And we've been waiting since Dinkins for the chance to even get a license! We're essential workers. And without us, the city doesn’t function."
Until last year, the number of mobile street vendor licenses had been artificially capped at 5,100, a number unchanged since the Koch administration. Unlicensed street vendors have faced constant harassment from the police, and some vendors eager for a license turned to the black market, paying up to tens of thousands of dollars for a permit.
In 2021, the city council passed legislation to address these problems by raising the number of street vendor licenses by 445 for each of the next ten years. Hundreds of new licenses should soon flow into the hands of the city's street vendors, finally making a vital but largely unregulated market more legit. Mayor Bill de Blasio also directed the NYPD to stop enforcing street vending laws, a move designed to protect vendors, many of whom are immigrants, from being hassled by fines or entangled in the criminal legal system.
The City's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene was supposed to start issuing the new licenses this past July, according to the law. But that hasn't happened.
At the same time, the NYPD has begun a scorched-earth crackdown on non-licensed street vendors, issuing 33 percent more tickets in the first half of this year as compared to 2019.
The Department of Health said in a statement that "the process is behind schedule, in part because we want to be responsive to the public comments we received on the proposed rules, and give this feedback the deliberation it deserves." A spokesperson said that the agency was "working as quickly as we can."
"No mas multas, no more tickets!" street vendors chanted as they marched their way through Lower Manhattan, stopping at the offices of City departments that they blame for inaction. Vendors and their advocates called on Mayor Eric Adams to cut back on enforcement, especially as the City drags its feet on issuing licenses.
Amidst the ticketing blitz in May, the NYPD arrested María Falcon, a mango vendor who works at the Broadway Junction train stop—a scene that went viral on social media.
"I want them to understand that we can't stop working, we're not hurting anyone. I'm poor—but I work. I can't go back home to Ecuador. My family needs me here. For this reason, I keep working," Falcon told Hell Gate at the time.
The Street Vendor Project of the Urban Justice Center helped organize Thursday's march and rally, and issued a series of policy recommendations meant to support vendors, including cutting down on the NYPD's jurisdiction over policing vendors.
Intro 1116, the city council bill that passed last year, formally shifted enforcement of street vendors to the City's Department of Consumer and Worker Protection, but the NYPD can still decide to unilaterally enforce laws against street vendors, as well as work in concert with DCWP.
"Unlicensed vending and vendors who flout the rules put New Yorkers at risk of everything from foodborne illness to traffic crashes," a spokesperson for DCWP told Hell Gate. They explained that DCWP has teamed up with the NYPD for enforcement in areas with high numbers of unlicensed vendors.
In a statement, the NYPD didn't elaborate on the increased enforcement and said that "the NYPD maintains its authority to enforce all violations and officers use a high level of discretion."
Even with a license, the NYPD can still make a street vendor's life difficult.
As Sammy Saleh marched, he held up a handful of tickets he's been given by the NYPD since just this May.
Saleh has run a halal food truck for over fifteen years in Times Square. He's always had a license, but a few years ago, the City installed steel bollards near where he usually parked his food truck in the highly competitive area around Times Square. Saleh continued to vend next to the bollards, but this placed him within 18 inches of the curb—a $25 violation. He told Hell Gate he had no trouble with the NYPD about this issue until this past spring, when the NYPD began enforcing the rule. Since then, he said he's been given over 100 tickets. On top of that, the NYPD has towed his truck several times.
"I've lost thousands of dollars each time this happens, because first they throw out all my food, then it takes a few days to get my truck back, so I'm not making money," Saleh said.
In one instance, according to Saleh, the NYPD allowed him to retrieve his truck from the parking lot behind the Midtown South precinct, but wouldn't help him move the confiscated motorcycles that prevented him from moving it. He had to move each motorcycle by himself until he could free his truck.
"I just want them to treat us as humans," Saleh said of the NYPD. "There are real problems in Times Square, but food vendors aren't one of them. It feels like they pick on us because they have nothing better to do."
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