The illegal vending machine in the mission is better because of enforcement

For months, San Francisco Public Works inspectors Alejandro del Calvo and Jondelle Bretz have roamed the Mission trying to enforce the city’s new illegal sales law.

For more than a year, the neighborhood has been one of the city’s hotspots for people selling stolen goods, with the two BART stations overflowing with vendors, frustrated residents and nearby businesses who have called the situation chaotic and dangerous. Officials temporarily closed the 24th Street BART plaza last summer, saying the vending machines had created lawlessness.

Bretz and del Calvo say there are now fewer vendors since they started enforcement and sidewalks and bus stops are more accessible during the day, but it’s still a game of cat and mouse. And after dark the streets fill up again. Nevertheless, they see a noticeable difference.

An unlicensed street vendor packages goods after an inspection by a San Francisco Public Works crew.

An unlicensed street vendor packages goods after an inspection by a San Francisco Public Works crew.

Adam Pardee/Special to The Chronicle

“There have been huge gains,” del Calvo said. “There is still a lot to deal with and from DPW we are doing the best we can as DPW inspectors.”

While Bretz and del Calvo are accompanied by a police officer, they said they are regularly threatened.

“They say they’re going to kill me,” Bretz said.

On Saturday morning, as del Calvo and Bretz crossed 24th Street, unauthorized vendors began packing up quickly as soon as they saw the men in neon yellow vests. The team made the trip Saturday morning up and down eight blocks of Mission Street between 16th and 24th, an area full of unlicensed street vendors selling shoes, clothes, bath products, tools and other goods.

“They know the drill,” del Calvo said as he watched the sellers scoop possessions into suitcases. “They already know us – we’ll see them pack up as soon as we’re here.”

A year ago, supervisors — with the support of Mayor London Breed — passed a law to regulate illegal vending to address the crisis at the mission and at UN Plaza, but it remains an open question whether enforcement is working. The crackdown on illegal vending machines comes as City Hall is in the middle of an intense debate about public safety and street conditions.

Mama B packs up the clothes she sold on Mission Street after San Francisco Public Works inspectors learned she didn't have a permit to sell.

Mama B packs up the clothes she sold on Mission Street after San Francisco Public Works inspectors learned she didn’t have a permit to sell.

Adam Pardee/Special to The Chronicle

Supervisors are expected to vote this week on Breed’s push to spend an additional $25 million to fund police overtime.

Supervisor Hillary Ronen, who represents the Mission, has been vocal about the illegal vending machine and broader crime, drug use and homelessness in the neighborhood, and reiterated this week that the neighborhood is in chaos and being neglected by City Hall.

Ronen said at a hearing Wednesday that she felt “betrayed” by the SFPD’s decision to use overtime dollars to fund its downtown officers instead of putting more police officers on the mission.

“I have asked this department to give the mission what it deserves in terms of police presence,” she said.

“I’ve been told time and time and time again, ‘There are no officers we can send to the mission,'” she said passionately. “It hurts.”

Ronen successfully lobbied for new ambassadors to help calm the neighborhood’s streets.

And public works inspectors have now spent months warning suppliers about the new legislation, which they began enforcing in September.

The ordinance required street vendors to obtain a permit from the city and provide proof of purchase for goods they sold. According to the latest data from Public Works, 122 street vendors have received permits – the vast majority of them, 112, authorized for the mission.

San Francisco Public Works Inspector Jondelle Bretz looks at Eduardo Garcia's sales permit.

San Francisco Public Works Inspector Jondelle Bretz looks at Eduardo Garcia’s sales permit.

Adam Pardee/Special to The Chronicle

Now public works inspectors like del Calvo and Bretz spend their days making sure contractors have permits or telling them to pack up and move on. It can be a challenging task. They are aware that many vendors are trying to provide for their families, but they want to help restore order in an area that many local residents have grown increasingly frustrated with and no longer feel confident navigating.

“We try to be as nice as we can be, and get as much compliance as we can,” del Calvo said.

On Saturday, Ronen spokesperson Santiago Lerma described the situation now as “a tale of day and night”.

“During the day, when inspectors are out and supported by the SFPD, conditions on the street are significantly improved,” he said. “In the evening, after the inspectors go home, it’s a completely different story.”

Since September, public works inspectors have issued 23 violation notices along Mission Street between 16th and 24th streets, spokeswoman Rachel Gordon said, with an additional 20 cases where items were removed as “abandoned” with no vendor present. Inspectors also issued two violation notices for vendors on Mission Street and Ocean Avenue, and one for a vendor on Fourth and Market streets.

At the UN Plaza, where street vending is not allowed, vendors have not been issued any violation notices, she said, because vendors “didn’t stick around to get the notices handed to them,” Gordon said.

“However, items listed for sale have been removed as ‘abandoned’ 15 times,” she said.

When del Calvo started doing street enforcement, “24th and Mission looked like a Moroccan bazaar,” he said.

San Francisco Public Works inspectors Alejandro del Calvo and Jondelle Bretz talk to vendors about getting permits.

San Francisco Public Works inspectors Alejandro del Calvo and Jondelle Bretz talk to vendors about getting permits.

Adam Pardee/Special to The Chronicle

They began by issuing notices of corrections – which do not include fines – to unauthorized suppliers. If that didn’t work, they escalated to violation notices, which can result in fines of $250, with escalating penalties. When inspectors see unauthorized sellers, they hand out information on how to get city permits and tell them to pack up their things and move on.

On Saturday, some passersby stopped to greet the inspectors, including David Bjorklund, 73, who was visiting the neighborhood for his weekly trip to Rainbow Grocery.

“The mission needs a major makeover,” he said. “From the Embarcadero to the end of the line … It’s a mess.”

Bjorklund said his wife was still at home because he didn’t want her to join him.

“Too many unwanted characters hanging out,” he said.

Del Calvo said getting suppliers on board is tough at times. The inspectors can spend an hour or more on each block, talking to suppliers and making sure they comply with the new regulation. They know that as soon as they leave, new suppliers can set up shop. But they say they’ve seen slow, steady improvement. At first, many suppliers resented them. As the months went by, however, they got more people on board, and now have relationships with many of the suppliers.

“They were reluctant at first (to get permits) because it had gone unabated for so long,” Bretz said. “But once they got them, they were proud — they feel legitimate.”

“We’ve grown a pretty thick skin over the last nine months,” del Calvo said.

The inspectors wandered over to talk to Audomaro Necada-Pacheco, who was selling merchandise at the southwest corner of the intersection of 24th and Mission. He hadn’t gotten his permit yet, they said.

They chatted briefly and he began gathering his things.

On the block between 15th and 16th, Bretz wandered over to Felicia Massey, who was selling shoes, jeans and a pair of sculptural candlesticks.

“You’re not going to like me,” said Bretz, “but I have to ask you to pack it up.”

“Not a problem,” she replied. “I’m just waiting for my sister to come with the car.

She sells things on the weekend — it “helps pay the bills,” she said, adding that she hadn’t been aware of the permit program.

She wanted her sister to look into what they had to do to get permission, but “it feels like they’re coming and throwing me out without any kind of warning.”

Community advocates remain concerned about the state of the neighborhood.

Ryen Motzek, president of the Mission Merchants Association, said having inspectors on 24th Street has helped. But he said he believes the neighborhood needs more resources and attention and a more robust security presence.

“There is no sustainable solution,” he said. “They just slap plasters everywhere.”

After hours, he said, the BART spaces border on “mania.”

Like Ronen, he said he felt the city neglected its mission in favor of downtown policing to prevent retail theft — ignoring widespread commercial burglaries, robberies and more serious neighborhood crime.

“San Francisco has a lot of affluent neighborhoods,” he said. “These crimes don’t happen there. … The silent majority does not want the mission to look or feel the way it does.”

SFPD Chief Bill Scott has said the department is struggling with staffing shortages, which has forced them to use overtime to fill unfilled positions. He also said that theft is one of the biggest problems for the city.

“The prevailing problem is that there are not enough police officers in San Francisco to go around to do what we need to do,” Scott told supervisors.

On the block between 15th and 16th, Bretz and del Calvo stopped to chat with Eduardo Garcia, who had an assortment of tools and other items carefully lined up on a tarp.

Did he have his permit?

He did, he said, pulling out the plastic-covered document.

“Perfect,” Bretz said with relief.

Reach St. John Barned-Smith: [email protected]

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