Department of Public Works employees, facing threats and physical violence in nearly a year of a new effort to tackle unpermitted vending, say they want police to take over enforcement.
“We won’t even say anything yet — they’re already threatening our families, threatening to kill us, telling us, ‘Just wait ’til we see you without the police,’ ‘We’ll follow you to your home,’” said one worker named John at the Mission District police station’s latest monthly community meeting.
“We’ve had inspectors being punched before, cans thrown at us, you name it,” said Alejandro, another worker.
About half a dozen Public Works staff patrol the Mission Street commercial corridor daily between 16th and 24th streets, part of an effort started in September to crack down on unpermitted street vending under new city permit requirements.
But it is clear when observing the vending hotspots at the plazas and along Mission Street that the effects of enforcement are temporary at best. Some vendors pack up and leave when city officials approach, but return once the officials have left.
It’s a “zero sum game” for some vendors who don’t have San Francisco addresses or scavenge or steal the goods they sell, said Michael Lennon, a Public Works manager. They can easily abandon their goods and leave the scene.
Lennon said that Public Works seizes property “almost on a daily basis,” after a lengthy multi-step process of educating vendors and issuing warnings. Sometimes, he said, situations escalate quickly.
“They have been physically assaulted; thankfully nothing too serious, but still scary,” said Public Works spokesperson Rachel Gordon, who noted, in response to the issues discussed at the meeting, that workers are unarmed, and will remain that way.
“We’ve made it very clear with our workers: If there aren’t the police available to support in the inspections, or if you’re feeling particularly vulnerable or it’s a danger … to extract yourself from the situation.”
Gordon said Public Works has a “closetful” of confiscated goods that it intends to donate to nonprofits.
While police are supposed to assist in the enforcement operations, Public Works and SFPD are not always at the same place at the same time — something that could be improved, Lennon said.
And, although Lennon and his colleagues who spoke with community members on Tuesday indicated that police taking over permit enforcement would be ideal, state law prohibits that.
Senate Bill 946, passed in 2018, decriminalized sidewalk vending, and prohibits criminal penalties for violations of sidewalk vending ordinances and regulations.
“State law was probably well-intended” with regards to avoiding opportunities for police abuses, said Santiago Lerma, a legislative aide for District 9 Supervisor Hillary Ronen. “But what the law has really done is made it difficult for us in San Francisco to regulate what’s going on on the street beyond 6 p.m.”
When the permit system first went into effect, community leaders emphasized that criminalization was not the goal.
But when administrative citations are issued for violating San Francisco’s permit requirement, Lennon said, they don’t “necessarily have teeth, or much of an impact on the particular group of violators who are most problematic.”
One community member, speaking with the Public Works workers at last week’s community meeting, called the process a “mockery.” Lennon said he didn’t disagree with that assessment.
For now, Public Works’ spokesperson said the department will continue its enforcement as best it can, shifting schedules and tactics as needed.
“If there are ways that we can pivot to make it more successful, then we’re always open to that,” Gordon said, adding that when workers are present, illegal vending issues improve. “Hopefully, through continued enforcement, we’ll get some behavioral changes.”