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VULNERABLE IN ITSELF

Results and recommendations from


a study of women street vendors in
New York City October 2019
Executive Summary
A male hot dog server greeting bankers in Manhattan’s Financial District.
A halal cart vendor, also male, serving regular lunchtime clientele on the bustling streets of Times Square.
While valid, these iconic images of New York City street vendors obscure an important fact about vending, often ne-
glected by policy makers, city planners, and the public: that street vending, like many forms of informal employment
globally, is women’s work. This report seeks to move the experiences of New York’s female vendors out of the shadows
and center their voices in the forefront of the public policy debate.

Key findings include:

Location of home and work: 77% of survey respondents live in Queens, Brooklyn, or the Bronx. The majority also
vend in the outer boroughs. Vendors are highly mobile, with half of respondents commuting between boroughs. This
mobility comes at a high cost of time, exhaustion and stress, however.
Permits and licenses: 72% of women vendors surveyed do not hold mobile food vending permits or general mer-
chandise licenses. This means that most women vendors are working precariously, at risk of severe fines and property
confiscation. This finding aligns with observations from previous research: that women vendors are more frequently
confined to lower-paid, higher-risk segments of the vending industry.
Livelihoods: Female vendors are breadwinners for their families. Some provide important supplementary income,
but 52% are the primary breadwinners and 32% are the sole providers for their families. This makes them heavily reli-
ant on the unstable income from their small businesses. The main alternative to vending is domestic work, a form of
wage labor that survey participants found less desirable than vending due to it’s lack of flexibility and potential for ex-
ploitation.
Fear, harassment, and stress: 44% of respondents report having felt unsafe in their work. The most commonly cited
source of fear was the threat of police or health inspectors, followed by robbery, verbal abuse, and conflict with male
vendors or strangers. Several have endured assaults and experienced physical injury. 25% reported having experienced
harassment linked to gender or race, including from law enforcement officials. When asked to identify their most sig-
nificant source of stress, women vendors referred most commonly to work and business, followed again by police and
inspections.
Relationship with law enforcement: Overall, 19 out of 50 women vendors referred explicitly to their interactions
with law enforcement as a source of fear or stress. The finding suggests that women vendors would be unlikely to seek
help from police in the event that they experience assault, harassment, or robbery—which, as described above, they
commonly do. The anxiety about police and inspectors was particularly acute for vendors who are undocumented.
Access to services: Women vendors struggle with access to basic financial and social services, which could help ease
strains at times of shock or stress. 42% of respondents do not have health insurance and 36% do not have bank ac-
counts. The majority (72%) reported being unable to save for retirement.
The stories of women vendors reveal that while vending is already precarious work, “vending while female” brings a
particular set of vulnerabilities. Rather than lightening this burden, New York’s existing regulatory regime blocks the
upward mobility of these women workers. The observation that women vendors are less likely than men to hold vend-
ing permits or licenses suggests that the city’s caps on these authorizations disproportionately impact women.
This report makes the following recommendations:
New York Police Department (NYPD)
Incidence of crime, including robbery and bias crimes, against vendors are high. Street vendors who are targeted by
police as “quality of life” petty criminals are unlikely to report more serious crimes against themselves or others to the

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“Last Sunday, the police came and
said ‘do you have a license?’ I said
no, but I’m working on it. They said
‘you have to pack up, you can’t sell
here without a license.’ That is the
second or third time they come after
me. I’m 71 years old. I’m trying to
make a dollar... I don’t want them to
lock me up, so I pack up and leave.”

— Ingrid, Brooklyn

authorities. The NYPD should shift its approach to street vending away from “enforcement-only” to one that emphasiz-
es the protection of vendors as vulnerable members of the community who can also serve as “eyes and ears” of the
police to target actual crime. This would improve public safety while also aligning with New York’s “Sanctuary City” pol-
icy of protecting immigrant populations.
New York City Council and Mayor Bill de Blasio
Legislation currently under consideration by the New York City Council (Intro No. 1116-2018) would gradually increase
the cap on food vending permits, thereby addressing one of the greatest sources of the women vendors’ precarious-
ness. The proposal had a public hearing in April 2019 and currently has a majority of the Council as co-sponsors. The
City Council should call a vote on the bill. Mayor de Blasio, who blocked similar reform in 2017, should support this leg-
islation, which will advance his stated goal of creating a fairer city for economically-marginalized groups.
Recommendations to the Street Vendor Project (SVP)
SVP, as the principal representative organization of street vendors in New York City, plays a critical role in supporting
women vendors. It can enhance its support through greater decentralization of activities to the outer boroughs; sup-
porting women vendors to participate in street fairs and other markets where vending permits are not required; and
advance its capacity to serve as a clearinghouse for women and men vendors in need of more comprehensive social,
financial and immigration services.

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Objectives and Background
This report contains findings from the first-ever known survey of women street vendors in New York City, conducted
between November 2018 and June 2019 by the Street Vendor Project at the Urban Justice Center. The study aimed to:
1) Contribute to the collective understanding of women vendors, whose unique experiences and needs are often ob-
scured in gender-neutral narratives on street vending in New York; and
2) Help SVP’s vendor leaders and staff understand how it can work more effectively on behalf of our women members,
in particular through our Women’s Committee.
SVP staff and interns conducted interviews in English, Spanish, French, and Mandarin with a total of 50 respondents by
phone and in person. In addition, researchers met with 9 women vendors in a focus group meeting on June 18, 2019,
to discuss the results and receive feedback. Several additional women were contacted for follow-up interviews. All
participants were SVP members; as a result, the survey responses may not represent an accurate cross-section of all
women vendors in New York.

Background
Globally, women dominate the vending sector in many countries and cities (Skinner et al 2018). Vending has relatively
low barriers to entry in terms of capital and education, which makes it accessible to low-income women workers. Like
other forms of self-employment, it provides flexibility for women to fulfill their unremunerated reproductive responsi-
bilities, such as child and elderly care (Roever 2014). As with other sectors of informal employment however, women
vendors are typically found in lower-paying, higher-risk parts of the industry.

In New York City, while there are no official statistics available on the total number of vendors, advocates and re-
searchers estimate that up to 20,000 people regularly sell merchandise, food, and art on city streets (Hernandez 2018).
The overwhelming majority are immigrants and people of color. For some, vending provides an important alternative
to exploitative low-wage employment options available to recent immigrant workers, in fields like domestic work, res-
taurant work, or construction.

While data is also scarce on the gender composition of New York street vendors, about 22% of the over 46,000 people
who received mobile food vending licenses from 2000 to 2018 were female (Environmental Control Board 2019). In
some outer borough neighborhoods, however, women dominate the vending labor force. A Street Vendor Project
2017 count of vendors in Corona, Queens, for example, found that 79% were women. Citywide, women are less likely
to hold vending permits and licenses. In 2018, for example, 57% of the tickets police wrote for unlicensed food vending
were written to women (Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings 2018). This lack of requisite paperwork among
women vendors likely reflects their lack of financial resources or access to the male-dominated underground market,
where vendors pay upwards of $25,000 to rent a two-year permit which the official permit holder gets from the city
for $200 (Dunn 2014, 2017).
New York’s current regulatory regime creates its own structure of penalization and criminalization (Dunn 2014). With
the strict caps on food vending permits and merchandise licenses, vendors risk fines, confiscations, and arrests while
working. Even permitted vendors face a complex set of restrictions on where, when, and how they can vend. In 2018,
street vendors received 11,697 tickets for violations of the City's laws and rules, including 711 written for unpermitted
mobile food vending (OATH 2018). Confusion surrounding regulations is also used to intimidate vendors from working
in legal spaces, through threats and tickets (Devlin 2011).

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Findings
Demographics
The majority of the 50 survey respondents are originally from Ecuador (23) or Mexico (13). Other countries represent-
ed include China (4), Côte d’Ivoire (2), Egypt (2), El Salvador (1), Peru (1), Jamaica (1), USA (1), Burkina Faso (1), and
Chile (1). The average age of respondents is 46, with a range of 22 to 69. Most respondents (82%) are food vendors,
while 14% sell merchandise and 4% (2 vendors) sell art.
76% of respondents live either in Queens (40%), Brooklyn (24%) or the Bronx (12%). Of all respondents, 58% sell in the
outer boroughs, while 32% commute to Manhattan for work. This aligns with observations by Dunn (2014, 2015) and
Devlin (2011) that women vendors are more likely to work in the outer boroughs. It also indicates a high degree of mo-
bility, with 50% of respondents commuting between boroughs to work. This mobility comes at a cost, however. One
woman vendor described pushing her cart two hours in each direction from Queens to Brooklyn, daily, because she
could not fit her cart on the subway.

Permits and Licenses


As described above, regulations require that food vendors hold food vending permits and that non-food vendors hold
merchandise licenses, despite decades-long waiting lists for both.
Out of the survey group, only 29% of food vendors are permitted, whereas the remaining 71% are not. Only two of the
seven merchandise vendors hold merchandise licenses. Consistent with previous research, the majority (72%) of the
food and merchandise vendors are working without the city’s authorization, which means they are at risk of steep
fines, arrests, and confiscation of their goods.

“I used to stay at home and take care


of my kids. In my culture, it is rare that
women would do this. But when I saw
my husband working, I was curious. I
wanted to help the family. He helped
me learn all the rules and regulations.
And now I vend on my own. It makes
me feel strong and proud.”

— Nosira, Brooklyn

Vendors who do have access to food vending permits (either in their own name or, more commonly, through the rent-
al market) are also subject to risk. One respondent had recently determined to relinquish her food vending permit,
which she could no longer afford to rent after the police intimidated from working in her long-term location. At the
time of survey, she was seeking a job in retail or fast food. Another vendor who held a Green Cart permit (for the sale
of whole fruits and vegetables in certain neighborhoods that have been deemed “food deserts”) had stopped vending
and taken on work as a house cleaner, since she and her husband could not afford a car to transport their cart.

Livelihoods
Over 80% of respondents work solely as vendors. Nine respondents did work other jobs or were in the process of look-
ing for work.

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Those who did non-vending jobs worked almost exclusively as domestic workers, in cleaning or caring. In most cases,
this work was a lesser alternative to vending. Two noted that they took these jobs because they could not get a permit
or license. One vendor who had recently lost her vending space was considering returning to elderly care, as she had
done previously. She noted that elder care was exhausting and poorly paid, and that she herself was too old for it. An-
other vendor described having suffered wage theft by her agency employer while working as a caretaker. With all of its
risks and instability, self-employed vending provides a relief from more exploitative forms of wage labor.
In contrast, several vendors described the benefits of vending and the flexible schedule that allowed them to drop off
their children at school or attend to medical appointments when necessary. Vendors who work close to home some-
times have their children visit them on the street; others who prepare foods, such as tamales, at home can do so while
also spending time with, and in some cases receiving help from, their children.

“Sometimes when you are working, you


don’t pay attention to who is behind you,
and men touch your shoulder or head,
and say “oh, you are pretty.” I say, “come
on, I don’t know you, sir, don’t touch me.”
I can’t say how many times a day or
month, but this happens all the time. But
we can’t do nothing. This is annoying, but
this is part of the job when you work in
the street.”

—Lei, Times Square

Female vendors are important breadwinners in their households. On average, respondents financially support 3.8 peo-
ple including themselves. Nearly half (44%) provide financial support for four or more people, 36% support more than
five, and two vendors provide support for more than 10. Many vendors reported that their earnings are sent back to
families in their home countries. The level of this support varies, but is often substantial. 52% of the respondents re-
ported contributing half or more of their households’ income in the last month, and 32% of respondents are sole pro-
viders, contributing 100% of their family’s income.

Women vendors struggle with access to basic financial, social service, and income security, which could help ease
strains at times of shock or stress (e.g., illness, birth of a child, death of a family member, slow business). 42% of re-
spondents do not have health insurance and 36% do not have bank accounts. The majority (72%) reported being una-
ble to save for their retirement.

Safety

Women vendors were asked “have you ever felt unsafe doing your job?” 44% reported they felt unsafe working as ven-
dors. In the follow-up focus group of 9 women vendors, almost all agreed that they had felt unsafe at times working on
the street.
The most common source of fear reported by these respondents was related to interactions with the police or health
inspectors, as mentioned by 12 vendors. As one respondent explained, “most vendors are afraid to be close to the po-
lice.” Another vendor, referring to her undocumented status, described feeling "being watched constantly." Language
barriers contribute to the feeling of anxiety and disempowerment. Several vendors described instances in which indi-
viduals who disliked their presence on the street — business owners, other vendors — had used health inspection or
police complaints as a weapon against them.

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Others mentioned fear of robbery and violence (5 respondents), verbal abuse (3), and harassment or violence from
male vendors (2). These fears are based on experience. Four respondents described physical assaults they had endured
on the job, including an attack that ended in hospitalization, a sexual assault, and several instances of robbery.

26% reported having experienced harassment linked to their gender, and several described incidents that they felt
were motivated by gender or racial discrimination. One female vendor explained how a male vendor tried to steal her
spot and flipped over her table; “I think he was racist.” Another reported that “the police and health department like
to target lone women on the street.” Similarly, a vendor explained that “the thieves and robbers target me and my
merchandise because I am a woman.” One woman summarized her feeling that “being a woman on the streets is vul-
nerable in itself.”
In contrast, of the vendors who felt safe in the workplace, one emphasized the positive experience of having “a good
and supportive community of customers.” Another noted that working in a high foot traffic area made her feel com-
fortable, since there were always people around. One unpermitted food vendor said that after many years working in
the same spot, the police and health inspectors knew her, and didn’t give her tickets.

Stress

Vendors were asked to describe their biggest source of stress in their lives over the last year. The most prominent
theme shared by respondents was related to work and money (12 responses). Many vendors expressed frustration
that business had slowed, or that customers were buying fewer products from them than before.
Relatedly, many described the material and emotional consequences of having an unstable income. One vendor de-
scribed constant worry over “paying all the bills, keeping the entire family healthy….rent, telephone bills and payments
to the permit holder.” “I have no time for myself because of work and domestic responsibilities,” reported another
respondent. Others highlighted the intense physical demands of the work. “I lay down because my back hurts, I don’t
have much time.” Another described: “vending is stressful: I get little sleep because of all the preparation, buying, and
travelling, and vending requires dealing with the rain and cold.” Several repeated this issue of inclement weather and
its impact on business, a reminder that vendors and other outdoor informal workers will be on the front lines of cli-
mate change.
Health issues among vendors themselves or their family members were significant stressors. One respondent had been
able to vend on an irregular basis for the previous year, due to a problem with her leg. A 67 year-old vendor described
having to clean, carry, purchase, and cook all by herself, while her son — who normally assists her — was recovering
from a debilitating surgery.

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Support from SVP
Participants were asked to rank their three top priorities for SVP future activities, out of a list developed by SVP’s Wom-
en’s Committee and staff. Many respondents were interested in receiving support to vend in street fairs or other mar-
kets where vending permits are not required. The second most popular response was support for accessing social or
financial services, such as childcare, health care, financial, employment, or immigration services. The third most popu-
lar option was for SVP to provide or facilitate access to trainings – for instance in English language or leadership skills.

In response to a request for general recommendations on supporting women vendors, eight vendors raised the issue of
obtaining permits as a major priority. Others suggested that SVP conduct dedicated outreach to women members, pro-
vide more trainings to women vendors on vending rights and vending regulations (such as “what to do when inspectors
come by”) and offer trainings “for teaching vendors other skills so that they don't have to work as a vendor if they don't
wish to.”
Ten respondents emphasized the importance of services that SVP already provides: fighting tickets, mediating conflicts
with police and building owners, and helping vendors access microloans. Women vendors in the focus group highlight-
ed the importance of SVP’s permits campaign and the opportunity it afforded them to tell politicians directly “why we
need permits.”
Being part of a larger organization also provides a sense of identity, community, and protection. During the focus group
session, one vendor commented: “I always felt worried but when I came here to SVP I felt protected. If anything hap-
pens I just come here. I know where to go, who to talk to.”
While most respondents said that they would like to join SVP Women’s Committee, many were concerned about the
time and ability to travel to SVP’s office. Though SVP staff and leaders conduct regular outreach and frequently visit the
outer boroughs, several vendors suggested that it expand its accessibility by holding more regular meetings or clinics in
these neighborhoods.

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Conclusion and Recommendations

Findings from this report echo the existing research on vending in New York City, while expanding the limited
knowledge base on a women worker group that is often overlooked.
The survey affirms that women vendors usually sell food, and that they usually live and work in the outer boroughs of
the city. It finds that women vendors are breadwinners - often the primary or sole providers for their families. This
makes them highly reliant on the unstable income from their small businesses, whose earnings are further strained by
fines from police and health inspectors. Nevertheless, self-employed vending allows them the independence to man-
age their schedules and earn a living away from forms of wage labor that run the risk of wage exploitation.

“The women don’t get respect. People


here rob us, they hit us, and every-
thing.... because they know we can’t
defend ourselves. They insult us. But
what are you going to do? When we
call the police, they don’t come. Like
the day when a woman came and
stabbed me in the face. Three people
called the police, and until today they
still have not come. Because they don’t
help us.”

-Carla, Harlem

This study affirms that most women vendors lack food vending permits or general merchandise licenses, which the cur-
rent regulatory regime renders extremely scarce, expensive, and tied to (male-dominated) underground networks. This
suggests that the current cap on vending permits and licenses disproportionately disadvantages women vendors.
In response to questions on fear, harassment, and stress, vendors frequently referred explicitly to over-policing and
inspection. This suggests that women vendors are unlikely to seek help from the police in the event that they experi-
ence assault, harassment, or robbery – which they frequently do. In contrast, two stories about police maintaining pos-
itive relationships with vendors demonstrates that a different kind of relationship is possible.
The stories of women vendors reveal that vending is difficult work – and that “vending while female” presents a partic-
ular set of vulnerabilities. Rather than lightening this burden, the existing regulatory regime further criminalizes, penal-
izes, and marginalizes these women workers in New York City.
Change is possible. By legalizing street vending in 2018 with no caps on permits, the City of Los Angeles demonstrated
the potential for integrating the vendor workforce into the city, while leveraging the benefits that vendors provide:
bringing nutritious food to communities, revitalizing neighborhood economies, contributing to the city’s tax base, and
making city streets more active and safe (Molina 2018).
Recommendations to New York Police Department (NYPD)
Although the NYPD in recent years has turned away from “broken windows” policing, women vendors still feel more
targeted by police than protected by them. The NYPD should work to build trust with the vendor community by open-
ing lines of communication with vendors in relevant neighborhoods and citywide. They should train all officers who
interact with vendors about the unique vulnerabilities they face. This will improve public safety and also align with the
NYPD’s new emphasis on community policing.

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“There are good and bad parts. It’s good
because you are your own boss, you can
do what you want when you want. But it is
heavy work...We deserve help because we
are not robbing anybody, we are not doing
anything wrong, we are earning our daily
bread. The only thing I ask for all the wom-
en vendors is that we have the opportuni-
ty to have a permit to work, because we
pay taxes, and we also have rights.”

- Maria, Queens

Recommendations to the New York City Council and Mayor Bill de Blasio
Legislation currently under consideration by the New York City Council (Intro No. 1116-2018) would go a long way to-
ward addressing one of the greatest sources of women vendors’ precariousness: the cap on the number of food vend-
ing permits. Under Intro 1116, the City would issue new permits at a rate of 400 per year for 10 years, first to vendors
on an existing waiting list and subsequently via lottery. New permits would be linked directly to the official holder, so
that they cannot be traded on the underground market. The bill would also establish a single vending enforcement
agency —which, with proper accountability, could help harmonize regulations and reduce the number of fines issued.
Finally, the bill would establish a Vendor Advisory Board, with representation from city agencies, property owners,
brick-and-mortar small businesses, and vendors. The board will study the current street vending landscape and make
recommendations for future changes. Establishing such a committee is considered a global best practice for street
vending management, although the board should have a greater proportion of vendor representatives than what is
currently proposed, and guarantee representation of women vendors (Skinner et al 2018).
Recommendations to the Street Vendor Project
This study highlighted the ways in which SVP plays a critical role in supporting women vendors. It also identifies a num-
ber of areas in which SVP and its Women’s Committee can bolster this support. These suggestions include:
 Decentralizing further to the outer boroughs, to make its legal support, know-your-rights trainings, and other
services more easily accessible to women vendors on a regular basis.

 Supporting vendors to participate in vending opportunities where permits are not required. New York’s land-
scape of summer street fairs and holiday markets provide opportunities for women to earn income, albeit inter-
mittently, in a safe environment. Other options may involve new public plazas, school sites, public housing proper-
ties, or subway stations. Along these lines, State Senator Jessica Ramos (Queens) recently announced a pilot pro-
gram to provide space for street vendors in empty MTA subway station storefronts.

 Developing the capacity to act as a clearinghouse for women and men vendors on social, financial, and immi-
gration services available from other organizations and agencies around the city – including those that support do-
mestic workers, due to the large overlap between these two fields.

 Exploring innovative ways for women street vendors, who often cooperate with each other on the sidewalk, to
form more formal cooperative arrangements. These might involve sharing kitchen space or equipment to ease
food preparation, bulk purchasing, cooperative child care, or other arrangements.

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Devlin, Ryan Thomas. 2011a. “‘An area that governs itself.’ Informality, uncertainty and the management of street
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Acknowledgements
This research and report were designed, conducted and written by Street Vendor Project staff, interns and volunteers
including Sarah Orleans Reed, Vicky Mao, Angela Ni, Ashley Xie, Zoë Kirsch, Maria Daniela Garzon Jouvin, Wendy
Michel Silva Juca, Sirine Mechbal, Sissy Villamar, Hashimita Agrawal, Karla Dana, and Jocabed Rosario. The founders of
the Street Vendor Project’s Women’s Committee, Heleodora Vivar, Eliana Jaramillo, Kelebohile Nkhereanye, Lei Bai,
Fatoumata Camara, and Sonia Perez provided guidance and direction to the research team. Matthew Shapiro, Sean
Basinski, Mohamed Attia and Carina Kaufman-Gutierrez edited the report.
The Street Vendor Project (SVP) is a grassroots, membership organization of New York City street vendors. SVP’s mis-
sion is to defend and expand vendors’ rights and improve their working conditions. It provides legal services when ven-
dors face harassment, helps vendors sustain and grow their businesses, and advocates for policies that allow vendors
to operate securely, safely, and lawfully. The SVP Women’s Committee aims to provides a dedicated space and sup-
port to women vendors to address their unique challenges.

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