In September 2021 StreetNet International Coordinator Oksana Abboud jointly with WIEGO Global Advocacy and Urban Policy Specialist Pilar Balbuena went on a field trip to New York City to get to know better the work of our affiliate organization Street Vendor Project and learn more about their achievements, as well as share knowledge and experiences.
About Street Vendor Project
Street Vendor Project (SVP) is a city-based grassroots street vendors’ organization, which is part of the nonprofit Urban Justice Center. It was founded in 2001 and currently has 2,000 members, 95% of whom are migrants from Central America and also from North Africa, Senegal, India and China. More than half of SVP members (60%) are women. All members of Street Vendors Project have access to a membership card, legal training and services, loans and emergency funds, general help and admission to the Vendy Awards. All members must pay annual fees of 100 USD and have a right to vote for the SVP Leadership Board.
The three main goals of SVP are:
- More permits and licenses. Due to permit and licensing limits, there are long waiting lists and black markets, causing many to vend not legally.
- More open streets and public spaces. Many streets and plazas have been closed off to vending due to political pressure by wealthy real state and corporate interests. Vendors need access to more public space in order to work.
- More respect. Police and health officers must be better trained to give the vendors respect they deserve. Vendors must be consulted before decisions are made that affect them.
The SVP structure is composed of a Leadership Board, the highest decision-making body in the organization, hired staff members and an Advisory Board of independent professionals who provide expert advice.
Mobilizing during the pandemic
Street Vendor Project was very active during the COVID-19 pandemic. The lockdown measures were particularly difficult for migrant workers, because they did not have access to social protection packages provided by local and national governments. That is why SVP joined ranks with other organizations to campaign for the inclusion of street vendors on an emergency fund called the Excluded Workers Fund (EWF), a fund put in place by the NY State Department of Labour, which was meant to provide a payment for workers with low income who are excluded from other benefits. This fund provides a lump sum amount of around USD 15,000 to each worker to cover the period of March 2020 to March 2021. Although street vendors can now apply for this fund, the number of people applying increased exponentially, and so many street vendors have yet to receive this support. However, SVP did manage to support its members through an unprecedent crowdfunding campaign, which has allowed them to collect so far more than $160,000.
The Leadership Board of SVP is composed of street vendors themselves, such as Heleodora Vivar Flores, Sophia Laskaris and Sonia Perez. The StreetNet delegation had the opportunity to meet Heleodora, Sophia and Sonia, as well as SVP Director Mohamed Attia and SVP organizer Jennifer. During the meeting, Heleodora and Sonia both shared how they struggled during COVID-19 and how SVP had managed to mobilize street vendors to improve their situation during the pandemic crisis.
According to Mohamed, the main campaign goals of SVP now are to lift the cap on street vending licenses; eliminate street vending fines, especially those which have exorbitant amounts; and open the streets, thus eliminating the restrictions to street vending in the State of New York.
Street Vendor Snapshot: Sonia Perez
Mohamed estimates that there are around 20,000 street vendors in New York City, and the recent pandemic crisis has led to a perceived increase of around 30%. Indeed, street vending stalls are present in most streets and avenues and are an integral part of New York’s landscape. Because street vendors are an integral part of the day-to-day life of most New Yorkers, SVP has actively promoted their role and shared their stories in their advocacy campaigns.
During the trip, Oksana and Pilar had the opportunity to speak with many street vendors in Queens, one of the five districts of New York City. Corona, a neighborhood in Queens, has the biggest street vending scene at local level, and Jackson Heights is also another popular spot for street vendors to sell many items, from souvenirs to food to clothing and flowers. Many vendors are from Central and South America and sell traditional crafts and food.
By talking with street vendors, they discovered that many run their small businesses as family. All family members have their own role in the street vending process. For some, this is a supporting economic activity that they can only do on the weekends, when police officers are not as likely to raid the streets and fine and evict vendors.
To learn more about what it means to be a street vendor in NYC, we interviewed Sonia Perez, a member of SVP Leadership Board. Sonia is a Mexican Mexican migrant who has lived in the USA for over 25 years and who joined SVP in 2015. She works selling tamales in Buschwick, Brooklyn, on the weekends.
It should be noted that Sonia lost her husband who passed away due to COVID virus and SVP set up a special for Sonia and her family a crowdfunding campaign to support her during such difficult times.
StreetNet International (SNI): Can you present yourself?
Sonia Perez: Hello, my name is Sonia Perez and I am a member of Street Vendor Project. I am part of the Leadership Board, so I am one of the leaders.
SNI: How did you become involved in the struggle for street vendors’ rights?
SP: I first become involved because I wanted to know more about working in the streets and to know my rights as a worker in the streets. And to learn more information related to street vendors here in New York City.
SNI: How is the life of a street vendor in New York City?
SP: The life of a street vendor is sad and is critical. Because here they do not respect our rights as people, they do not respect the work that we do in the streets. We have many challenges with the politicians in this city, because they say street vendors are not well regarded in such a big city.
But I think that is false. A city that is so attractive and so important in the world without any vendor, it will stop attracting people. Because sometimes you might not have enough money and you are leaving the bus, metro and you can find a hot dog stand, a stand with accessible food for all that are visiting this city.
SNI: What are some of the challenges you have faced?
SP: The challenges we have faced are so many. I will just mention a few.
The main challenge we have faced is that they have not supported us to open spaces in the streets, to have permits to be able to work legally, they say. We have achieved, after 30 years, we managed to pass proposition 1116 in the Municipal Council. So now they will start issuing licenses next year, starting from January.
This is a challenge. And another challenge, which is the strongest we face, is the harassment of vendors by police and authorities. That is the strongest one we face now.
SNI: What are you fighting for now?
SP: Now we have two important things we are trying to achieve: demand a moratorium to the Municipal Council to stop police from harassing vendors. That is one thing we are fighting for now.
And another would be for the proposals that are already sent to the Municipal Council, we want to submit them to a vote, such as 1175, so they can start issuing permits again but without a time limit. That means, they shouldn’t start issuing just for a year and then close it again. That there is a time limit to get these permits. And for this proposal 1175, it does not matter what we sell in the streets. It can be food, it can be general goods – what we mean by general goods is that it can be several different types of selling.
SNI: What do you think has been your biggest achievement so far?
SP: Our biggest achievement, as I have mentioned before, was to get the City to start issuing permits again for vendors after a blockage that lasted 30 years. That was an achievement…I say it was a step. But it was a small achievement.
But I think that to achieve something big, you need to start with something small. So we go step by step, stage by stage and I know that by organizing ourselves and encouraging everyone to defend their rights as workers in such a big city it is the start of our work.