During the peak summer months, business is booming for Mohamed Awad, an Egyptian street vendor who operates a halal food stand at Hudson Yards. With so many tourists flooding the area, there is plenty of business for everyone. Instead of competing with one another, the food vendors cooperate with each other and Awad is their unofficial mayor. Although business is good, the vendors have found that the NYPD has become a major thorn in their side. Awad says he has received 75 tickets in the last six months from the NYPD.
“We are talking hundreds of dollars worth of summons from the police department during the same time the City of New York didn’t allow the police to be involved with us,” he said. “It was supposed to be in 2020 that the enforcement was with consumer affairs. The last time consumer affairs visited me was two or three months ago. The only people who are always here are the police department and the health department.”
These daily interactions with police officers have become a regular occurrence for street vendors, but the NYPD shouldn’t be involved. Last year the City vowed that DCWP, not the NYPD, would oversee street vendor enforcement. Yet, data obtained by Documented shows the NYPD has continued enforcing street vendor regulations.
Awad, who’s diabetic, says the daily visits from the police have taken their toll on his health. To bring the point home he removes his shoe to show the unhealed wounds on his swollen foot. Frustrated, Awad says that sometimes the police comes three times a day issuing multiple tickets for the same violation.
“I believe for any worker that’s harassment. When you ask me about my food vendor license two, or three times a day, what’s happening? I’m the same person I was in the morning. Why do you keep asking,” he said. “They come when I have customers and people look at me like I’m selling drugs or something.”
Mohamed Attia, Managing Director of The Street Vendor Project, says very little has changed for street vendors and that DCWP has only added yet another layer of enforcement.
“Even after the legislation passed last year in January and was enacted in March, we have seen the NYPD interacting with the street vendors on their own,” he said.
Three vendors, two of which declined to give their names, told Documented that police enforcement has been consistent. Wong a 70-year-old woman who sells an assortment of hats, masks, and other trinkets in downtown Flushing, felt bullied by one particular officer who she said would come regularly, threatening to ticket her unless she moved.
“There’s one cop who usually comes and the way he talks is very rude,” she said. “He told me to let him not see me here tomorrow. I said what was I supposed to do? How am I going to make money so I can eat and he told me he didn’t care, it’s not his problem.”
Since taking over street vending enforcement last year, DCWP has issued 1,463 tickets. Yet the NYPD has continued to dole out tickets to vendors as well. The NYPD has issued 127 vendor-related criminal summonses and issued another 1,320 civil vendor-related summonses the first half of this year, according to NYPD data. In 2019, the police issued 377 criminal and 1,884 civil tickets. If the NYPD continues to issue tickets at its current rate, it will surpass the level of enforcement in 2019, despite its mandate to stay away from street vending.
And it’s not only licensed vendors that are bearing the brunt of enforcement.
On most days, the bustling sidewalks of Downtown Flushing are transformed into a vibrant bazaar of both licensed and unlicensed street vendors hawking everything from facemasks to giant Chinese hairy melons, usually grown in a home garden. But on a hot Wednesday afternoon in July, the streets were a virtual ghost town. Throughout the day the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection (DCWP) and the NYPD, at the request of local officials, cleared out dozens of vendors and confiscated some of their goods.
Wong had sensed something was going on when she saw many of her fellow vendors pack up and flee.
“We saw [NYPD and DCWP] confiscating the stuff of other vendors,” she said. “When we saw that happened, we were afraid so we packed up and left.”
According to Wong, both agencies often do sweeps between Thursday and Friday. “Usually, we come out Monday through Wednesday and on the weekends because we know the police come out on Thursday and Friday and we don’t want to take the risk,” she said. “This is a huge fear for us because we have no stability in our work schedule.”
Mohamed Attia, says that part of the DCWP role when it took over street vendor enforcement was to educate vendors about the rules and regulations, yet very little education is being done.
“Vendors who are permitted and licensed are still getting enforced by DCWP, by NYPD, by the Department of Health. It’s just this constant enforcement. That’s why we ask where are the money for education. Where are the resources? There’s no money going to these resources but all the money is going to fining and ticketing them.”
According to DCWP, joint inspections with the NYPD vary from week to week, and about 15 percent of all inspections are conducted with the NYPD.
“We do joint inspections with NYPD in areas with significant and repeated noncompliance, including in locations where our inspectors have been threatened with violence,” said Abigail Lootens, Associate Commissioner of DCWP. “When we are doing inspections with NYPD, we have seen more vendors provide ID.”
Councilmember Amanda Farías, who sits on the Committee on Consumer and Worker Protection, says that she has been frustrated to hear that DCWP has continued to rely on the police for enforcement.
“For me, I believe our city needs to be focused on investing in recovery for small businesses and workers,” she said.
“Instead of supporting street vendors, which I think are small businesses of their own, they’re increasing enforcement on hard-working New Yorkers.”
Farías hopes to call DCWP before the council during the fall legislative session.
“The next path forward is having a hearing, is getting accountability, getting some of these answers from the folks who have been there from the last administration, on what is the criteria for escalation.”
Back in Flushing, Wong continues to vend despite the danger police pose to her livelihood. After constantly being harassed by the police she took two months off. But after she failed to find another job, she was forced to go back to vending. She wishes that she was legally able to vend on the street but the odds of that are against her.
“It’s really tiring and to be honest I don’t really want to be doing this but I can’t do anything else,” she said. “I want to just make a living. I’m pretty old and I looked for another job no one would take me. I just want to just make some money to pay my living expenses and to operate in a legal way but I can’t get a license.”