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Group Alleges Harassment of Street Vendors

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Times Staff Writer

Officials of the Central American Refugee Center charged Monday that police and county health inspectors have harassed sidewalk food vendors in recent Olvera Street sweeps. Health officials, escorted by police officers, on Sunday warned the vendors--many of them undocumented Central American and Mexican immigrants--that they could be fined and their products confiscated if they don’t buy sales licenses and comply with health codes.

Lorena Munoz, a lawyer with the refugee center in Los Angeles, accused police and inspectors of attempting to intimidate the peddlers who hawk tamales, flavored drinks and other foods every Sunday in the streets surrounding Our Lady Queen of Angels Church at Sunset Boulevard and Olvera Street. In a show of support for the vendors, priests at the landmark church last month declared the surrounding streets a “safe zone” for the food peddlers.

New Warnings

The vendors last week complied with county demands that they prepare their wares in a kitchen where sanitation checks can be made, after the United Methodist Church, 1010 Flower St., offered its kitchen. But when inspectors returned Sunday to check on compliance, they issued new warnings.

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Munoz charged that inspector Letaun Cole-Burke, who questioned the vendors Sunday, “was objecting to petty things, really trivial things. And the idea that she was photographing people and asking for identification . . . to me that is just another form of intimidation.”

Munoz said that Cole-Burke cited the vendors for positioning their food too close to the ground and for not listing the ingredients in their products on labels in an order indicating most-used and least-used items.

Rodolfo Bgnera, chief sanitarian with the health department’s northeast district, said Monday that the additional warnings were justified.

“If you go around the area and you see the urine running down the sidewalk, you want to make sure that none of that food touches the sidewalk,” he said.

The vendors also were ordered to purchase sales permits from the department. But Munoz protested that the cost of such licenses--$66 to $124 each year--is beyond the means of the street peddlers.

“People who are selling gum for a living will not be able to do this,” she said.

The inspections, which began after local merchants complained to health officials, substantially thinned the peddlers’ ranks. Only 60 of the 115 vendors usually working the streets around Our Lady Queen of Angels displayed products on Sunday.

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A vendors group will meet today to decide whether they should pay the license fees and continue their sales, which for some are the sole means of subsistence, or simply give up, according to Munoz.

“This is people’s livelihood,” she said. “It keeps them off welfare.”

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