BUSINESS

More Angelenos are becoming street vendors amid weak economy

The ranks of street vendors have swelled to include laid-off professionals, war veterans, single mothers

Sitting at her street vending booth with products arrayed neatly on a sequined purple tablecloth, Jackie Lloyd reflects nostalgically on the days when she had a steady salary and regular hours.

That was four years ago, before the 39-year-old was laid off from her job as an elementary school cafeteria worker and mounting bills forced her to venture into self-employment.

Now the Pico-Union resident hops from location to location, selling body oils, shea butter, soap and incense. She moves when nearby businesses complain or she feels unsafe.

Some days, her sales bring in $150. Others, they don't break $20.

"If I just had a 9-to-5 job, it'd be guaranteed money," she said. "Then again, I'm my own boss, and I meet different people every day."

Once the domain of recent immigrants trying to scratch out a living, the ranks of sidewalk merchants have swelled since the economy soured in 2007. The group — an estimated 10,000 countywide — is now larger and more diverse, pulling in out-of-work professionals, war veterans and single mothers, according to a recent report by the Los Angeles chief legislative analyst's office.

More men joined the ranks after losing jobs in construction and restaurants. Now they are hawking clothing, food, knickknacks and more, said Janet Favela, an organizer with the Los Angeles Street Vendor Campaign. Younger vendors, in their 20s and 30s, are more common.

And more Angelenos are supplementing their jobs with vending, because of low pay and high rates of underemployment, Favela said.

"They have to work Saturdays and Sundays too, or they're not going to make it," she said.

Street merchants also factor into the region's growing economy of sole proprietors. Working alone has become a popular business model since the recession as companies cut jobs and boosted productivity and many workers were forced to stay in the labor pool past retirement age.

"A lot of the businesses we encounter are one-man or one-woman shops," said David Berkus, a counselor with the greater Los Angeles chapter of nonprofit small business association SCORE. "They're looking for ways to give themselves some job security."

Technically, sidewalk vending is illegal in Los Angeles, unlike in San Francisco and New York. Law enforcement officers can issue citations if any vendors set up where they're not welcome.

From July 2013 — the start of the city's fiscal year — to March 2014, 286 citations were given out, each of which could result in up to $1,000 in fines and even jail time. That's more than the entirety of the previous fiscal year, when 271 citations were issued.

Officials are debating whether to legalize street vendors. City Council members Jose Huizar and Curren Price are pushing legislation to legitimize the so-called micro-businesses. The city's chief administrative officer is studying potential costs of an enforcement system — data that the Economic Development Committee will eventually consider in drawing up a plan.

Critics complain that areas flush with street vendors face steeper trash pick-up costs, blocked sidewalks and a tax revenue shortfall. Others worry that implementing a system to regulate peddlers will be even more expensive.

But street vendor activist groups are optimistic that a draft ordinance could be ready for the council to consider in the fall.

Los Angeles native Karina Mendez, 27, runs a clothing shop in a space she shares with an auto body shop. But business has been slow lately, so she opens only a few days a week.

Her husband, Alex, 37, has seen his paychecks shrink because he is assigned fewer hours as a restaurant cook. One month, the couple struggled to make rent.

So they teamed up to peddle $2.50 bacon-wrapped hot dogs part-time from a street cart, learning to evade police as they sell around South Los Angeles.

One afternoon, at 58th Street and Vermont Avenue, near an El Super grocery store and a Jack in the Box, Karina perched on a blue cooler filled with ice and stuffed dollar bills into a pouch around her neck.

"We need to pay our bills, so we're trying to make some extra money," she said. "And if I think about it, I make more money here selling hot dogs than at my clothing store."

The Economic Roundtable, a research group, estimates that Los Angeles street vendors reap more than $100 million in sales a year, 43% of that from food sales. These vendors aren't operating fancy food trucks; they're grilling chicken in their driveways or peddling fruit by freeway exits.

Vendors have become the go-to shopping destination for many Angelenos — parents looking for a bargain on children's clothing, families that can't afford a restaurant meal, customers for whom Wal-Mart prices are now too high.

"The recovery never happened for people in a lot of our neighborhoods," Favela said. "Many of those people wait for vendors to come by — they can negotiate with vendors, who understand their struggles."

Lloyd tracks sales by writing them in a notebook, though she's planning to start using her smartphone as a digital ledger. She just signed on for mobile payment system Square to allow her customers to pay with credit cards.

"It's more convenient, especially for tax purposes," she said. "You can get audited just like the next person."

The proportion of her customers with steady jobs is increasing, she said. For many of the rest, struggling on government aid, she's been offering her inexpensive products on credit.

"I have a heart," she said. "People just don't have money like they used to."

Lloyd spent four months job-hunting after being laid off, thinking she'd bounce back quickly. Having won awards for her cookies in culinary school, she sent off dozens of applications to bakeries and eateries, as well as to Wal-Mart, Target and other retailers.

Repeatedly, she was told she was overqualified. She started siphoning money from her savings.

"I couldn't even get a job at Subway," she said.

Fellow vendors are a part of the Los Angeles landscape: a couple selling roses out of buckets in the late afternoon heat on a Highland Avenue grass median, a woman with a wire basket hung with jewelry in the Fashion District, a man bouncing a stick wreathed in glossy balloons on his shoulder on Western Avenue.

But that's not what Lloyd wants for herself.

With financial help from her sister and her fiance, she'd like to start running a food truck or take over a Subway franchise in the next few years. Meanwhile, she continues to apply for full-time jobs.

"Vending doesn't bring home the bacon like I want it to," she said. "I'm just waiting for something else to bite."

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