Investigating the fine line of legality in the SF Bay Area

An Inside Look At Street Vending

July 4, 2015

The peddlers and vendors on the street corners of San Francisco have become part of the city atmosphere. Many tourists and locals will stop to buy a hot dog or a necklace from someone with a cart on the street. However, city laws about street vending draw a line between legal and illegal street vending – one that is visibly blurred by the number of unpermitted vendors which populate San Francisco’s city blocks.

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Simon Gonzalez, Safety Ambassador for Union Square

Simon Gonzalez, Safety Ambassador for Union Square, explained that street vending is legal as long as you apply for a permit with city hall. “Then you’re assigned a number and that number is painted on the sidewalk and you have to stay in that place.”

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Alejandro Alicia sells his handmade cutlery jewelry

Alejandro Alicia, a street vendor near Westfield mall in San Francisco, explained the process of how he acquired his license. “[It] takes 25 minutes to get a license. You show them [the city] what you do. The last Thursday of every month they give licenses to everybody.” Alejandro creates jewelry out of forks and spoons and has been selling them all day, everyday since “before you were born.” Alejandro also said that, “I’ve never had trouble with the police. I show them my license and they leave me alone.”

However, permits for food are more difficult to obtain, and many vendors do not have them.

“There’s a lot of illegal street vendors,” Gonzalez said. “There seems to be more vendors every year.”

Although it is illegal to sell things on the street without a permit, police are often lenient, giving warnings before fines.

“Officers will ask them to move along and they leave or get cited,” Gonzalez said. “Most of them leave though.”

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Felipe selling corn and fried foods on a street corner

Another vendor, Felipe (who chose not to give his last name), said, “Sometimes they find them and ask them to move to a different area. There’s a lot of illegal street vendors.”

Cities continue to struggle to find a balance between allowing newcomers to set up shop and begin living the American dream while also ensuring the number of vendors remains reasonable and safe, and allowing existing shops to still thrive.

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