Chicago’s street vendors battle the omicron surge and inflation with little help

street vendor Back of the Yards
Street vendor Juan Jose Gama prepares a serving of elotes in Chicago's Gage Park neighborhood. Gama says the omicron surge and inflation have exacerbated the challenges of his already struggling business. Esther Yoon-Ji Kang / WBEZ News
street vendor Back of the Yards
Street vendor Juan Jose Gama prepares a serving of elotes in Chicago's Gage Park neighborhood. Gama says the omicron surge and inflation have exacerbated the challenges of his already struggling business. Esther Yoon-Ji Kang / WBEZ News

Chicago’s street vendors battle the omicron surge and inflation with little help

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Before the pandemic, Juan Jose Gama’s elote cart was often surrounded by customers, he said.

“I couldn’t keep up,” Gama said in Spanish.

Usually, he’d park his elote cart at the corner of 53rd Street and Kedzie Avenue in Chicago’s Gage Park neighborhood, and most of his clients were kids who attend the nearby Sawyer Elementary School — and their caretakers — buying snacks after school.

Gama, a 49-year-old cancer survivor who raised a family of six working as a street vendor for more than 20 years, said the past couple of months have been particularly difficult.

The omicron surge kept many customers indoors, or it made them distrustful of street vendors like himself, Gama said. Then Chicago Public Schools closed for several days as teachers fought for better protections during the surge. During that time, Gama had to sell tamales over Facebook to people around the neighborhood.

And there is yet another thing hurting business these days: inflation.

“The corn [and other ingredients], the containers for the sliced fruit, the Styrofoam cups, the bags — everything went up [in price],” Gama said.

Pre-pandemic, Gama would take home around $150 a day or more, after costs, he said. Nowadays, his margins are much smaller — he might take home $80 a day, after being out for more than eight hours in the cold.

Gama is one of more than 1,500 food-cart operators in Chicago, according to a report from the Illinois Policy Institute. With many street vendors being undocumented immigrants, COVID-19 relief funds, whether distributed as business grants or unemployment checks, have been unavailable to them.

Two years into the pandemic, now coming out of a months-long surge, and facing higher costs, the only form of help available to Chicago’s street vendors comes from local efforts by those most familiar with them.

One group in particular, Increase the Peace, a community group from Back of the Yards, has zeroed in on the unique challenges faced by street vendors.

Two years ago when COVID-19 began sweeping through the city, Increase the Peace Executive Director Berto Aguayo went to the group’s government partners to ask what resources were available to food-cart vendors. Their answer? Not much.

“They were like, ‘Yeah, that wasn’t on our radar,’” Aguayo recalled. “We were like, ‘What do you mean, it wasn’t on your radar? … These are people who need help.’”

Increase the Peace decided to fill the gap, raising nearly $50,000 via GoFundMe and a PayPal fund to establish grants for street vendors (they can apply here). Aguayo said the group distributed $500 checks to nearly 60 vendors in 2020.

Now, Aguayo said, Increase the Peace is in the middle of giving out its second round of checks, this time to about 40 food-cart operators.

With the surge and inflation, “a lot of street vendors … are probably now experiencing more hardship — or a similar hardship — that they experienced during the beginning of the pandemic,” Aguayo said.

He recently delivered a check to Gama, the elotero, on one of the coldest days in January.

For Gama, the timing was perfect. The money he had set aside to buy a home was depleted over the past two years, and recently, his landlord decided to sell the apartment building where his family lived. Gama said Increase the Peace’s grant came in handy for the security deposit his family needed to secure a new apartment.

street vendor Juan Jose Gama
Juan Jose Gama pushes his elote cart down 53rd Street in Chicago’s Gage Park neighborhood. Gama said, some days, he takes home about $80 after being out in the cold all day. Esther Yoon-Ji Kang / WBEZ News
“A lot of the street vendors that we have given money to, they’ve expressed, ‘You did not know, [but] this came at the perfect time,’” Aguayo said. “That’s kind of been a recurring message.”

Aguayo added that the grant demonstrates the need for cash resources for low-income residents.

“When we [started] this fund, there were a lot of eyebrow raising and questions about giving people money,” he said. Recently, with the federal Child Tax Credit payments and ongoing discussions about universal basic income programs, Aguayo said those views are slowly changing.

“We should be giving people money, trusting them to do what they need to do to better their circumstances,” he said. “One vendor might use that money to pay rent, another might buy more supplies to sell more.”

Elizeth Arguelles is an organizer with Increase the Peace. On a blustery day last month, she brought Gama some masks as well as a few at-home COVID-19 tests.

Arguelles herself is the daughter of a street vendor. Since arriving in the United States as a 9-year-old, she has been helping her mother sell tamales out of a cart in Little Village.

Arguelles said her mom, too, has been having a tough time.

“She has talked about, ‘Oh, things just keep rising.’” Arguelles said. “Clients also talk about it. A lot of our clients are [working-class] people, so any rise in the price is a lot for them.”

Arguelles says it’s unacceptable that two years into the pandemic, there’s practically no government help available for street vendors.

“They already, in a way, know that they have to fend for themselves,” Arguelles said. “It’s definitely heartbreaking seeing people … just be OK with not being helped because they’re used to that.”

WBEZ reached out to the city of Chicago to ask what relief was available to street vendors. Eugenia Orr, with the city’s Department of Housing, sent a statement saying, “The Chicago Department of Housing is committed to expanding housing access and choice to all residents, including those in the informal economy,” including street vendors, nannies and other workers.

On Friday, the department announced that one of its low-income housing programs is making it easier for workers in the informal economy — including street vendors — to apply for affordable housing. The Chicago Low-Income Housing Trust Fund provides subsidies to landlords to rent out apartments to households earning 30% of the area’s median income or less. Until now, applicants had to provide proof of income from their employer. Applicants can now provide a notarized statement or signed affidavit of their household income.

A representative with Chicago’s Small Business Center within the Department of Business Affairs & Consumer Protection (BACP) said there were no business assistance programs available for street vendors.

Arguelles, with Increase the Peace, said people should recognize street vendors not only as vital representations of their culture and heritage in many Chicago neighborhoods, but also as a sector of the economy that helps generate revenue for the city and state.

Esther Yoon-Ji Kang is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her on Twitter @estheryjkang.