Street Vending: Selling to Survive

There is one place you can go in Vancouver to see firsthand what poor people in our province are forced to do to survive.  

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Using the law as a catalyst for positive social change, Pivot Legal Society works to improve the lives of marginalized communities.

The 00 block of East Hastings Street is lined with survival street vendors, low-income people whose daily existence is remarkably consistent: every day they salvage whatever they can from garbage bins and food line-ups to sell enough items to supplement the approximately $7.80 a day that welfare provides. Many are addicted to substances, suffer in their mental health, and have experienced considerable trauma in life.

There’s a pretty simple explanation for why survival street vending exists. The cost of living in Vancouver and cities across the province has been rising steadily and steeply for years, to the point that this is now the most expensive province in the country to live in. The cost of food has risen. Average rental rates continue to climb. Fees for provincial services and taxes have increased. Social assistance rates, meanwhile, have remained unchanged.

The last time the provincial government raised the rates for income assistance and disability benefits was over eight years ago, and many people are incapable of even accessing these government benefits because of barriers to the system resulting from cuts by the provincial government.

Failed by their government and shunned by traditional employers and the “formal” economy, it should come as no surprise that hundreds of low-income and disabled residents in the Downtown Eastside have turned to the informal economy and street vending for their day-to-day survival. 

To many people this impromptu market isn’t pretty. They drive by and see trash. They assume, incorrectly, that any item that looks like it wasn’t from the garbage must have been stolen. They see chaos and they see crime. For years, the City of Vancouver and Vancouver Police Department saw the same thing. Their solution was to make survival street vending illegal, enacting and enforcing bylaws that have lead to mass ticketing, fines, and jail for those who fail to make court appearances.

Over the last few years, Pivot has teamed with VANDU to organize and represent survival street vendors who have been ticketed under the City’s bylaws. These vendors meet weekly to talk about the VPD’s enforcement tactics and discuss how to work towards lobbying the government for a safe and legal place to vend.

After years of punitive fines and displacement tactics the City and police have been forced to recognize that enforcement isn’t working, and have begun looking at alternatives. Earlier this month the City announced that it had bought the vacant lot at 501 Powell St. and will be submitting a plan to develop the site as a semi-permanent home for a Downtown Eastside market. It is no secret that the City hopes a permanent location off of the street will help draw vendors away from busy Hastings Street and into a controlled environment.

Under the plan, the peer-driven Street Market Society, which already organizes and operates a legally sanctioned market on Sundays in the DTES, will run the site and provide the type of support to vendors that has been absent on Hastings Street. They have forged personal relationships with the vendors, and have created ground rules for vending which include a refusal to allow suspected stolen goods from being sold.

Not surprisingly, there is opposition from some nearby business owners and residents, whose misunderstanding of who street vendors are and why and what they vend has lead to fear that a sanctioned market space nearby will bring the of visual of poverty from Hastings Street further east (and on the flip side, some DTES residents also see this move as part of the City’s desire to plan to gentrify and develop the DTES west of Main Street).

While fear of new social initiatives, especially one like this that brings no certainty of success, is certainly understandable, it is also easy to lose sight of the forest for the trees. Petitioning against efforts by the City government to find immediate solutions to some of our society’s deeply rooted economic and social problems is not only counter-productive, but it lets the provincial government, who has exacerbated the need for survival street vending with dramatic cuts to social services, off the hook entirely. It reinforces the incorrect notion that poverty is a neighbourhood issue, to be pushed from block-to-block, and not one that affects every corner of our country.

There is no guarantee that an off-street vending location will end up providing a safe and viable location for a DTES market or that all vendors will move from Hastings Street to the new sanctioned location. In fact, many vendors are skeptical that the customers, who are also typically low-income residents of the DTES, will travel the multiple blocks between the 00 block of Hastings to the proposed site.

That is why Pivot and VANDU believe that regardless of the outcome of this initiative, the City must ensure that those who are left to vend on the street, for their survival, must not be the targets of continued bylaw enforcement and displacement. Ticketing has not been, and never will be, the answer to the social manifestations of poverty.

And while the City’s efforts to recognize and legitimize the aspects of the informal economy which have become vital to many low-income residents should be applauded, at the end of the day these initiatives would be unnecessary if the provincial and federal governments raised the rates and provided adequate support levels to keep people above the poverty line in the first place. It is them who should be the subject of petitioning. 

This article was originally published in the Georgia Straight.