‘Street vendors are the street lights of Chicago’: Why this local organization began an initiative to provide relief to street vendors

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A local organization is providing relief to street vendors after a decline of sales and lack of federal aid leaves them financially struggling, uniting the community of Chicago. 

Increase the Peace, a volunteer led organization that develops young leaders and promotes peace in efforts to decrease violence, has raised more than $30,000 through Gofundme to provide relief to Chicago’s street vendor community impacted by COVID-19. 

Elizeth Arguelles of Little Village, co-chair of the Increase the Peace Street Vendor Relief initiative, has been in the street vendor business for more than 15 years. 

Arguelles, who began selling as a teen alongside her mother, now sells Mexican food like tamales, champurrado, and arroz con leche everyday at 26 St. and Hamlin, for personal expenses and to save funds for college. 

She said the low foot and car traffic has caused the sales of street vendors like herself to drop and struggle to make ends meet, leaving Chicago’s beloved street vendor community to suffer. 

“Street vendors are the street lights of Chicago and any city,” Arguelles said. “They don’t require electricity but they brighten our city so much. It’s time we help the most vulnerable and the ones that need us the most.”

Arguelles said before COVID-19, street vendors faced challenges like police harassment and conflicted city ordinances. Now, those challenges consist of high risk exposure to COVID-19, lack of representation and no federal aid. 

“The [Street Vendor Relief] fund will provide selected vendors with cash assistance of $500. They will be given to each family household to use for [their expenses],” Arguelles said. “Most importantly, it will provide them with a small peace of mind.” 

Arias Benitez, resident of Back of the Yards and co-chair of the Increase the Peace Street Vendor Relief initiative, is dedicated to helping the street vendor community, as Benitez’s mother has been a street vendor in the Back of the Yards neighborhood. 

“I personally saw the frustration and anger in my mother’s eyes when she would send me links to business relief applications and I would tell her she did not qualify because of her legal status,” Benitez said. “I’m doing this for people like my mother and families who might not have any kind of support.”

Benitez said the mission of the “Covid-19 Relief Fund for Street Vendors in Chicago” committee  is simply to help their community. Currently formed by 14 individuals in the committee, the group noticed a lack of federal, state, and city government aid towards street vendors. 

“When you think of summertime in the city, you most likely think of paleteros or eloteros. These individuals bring so much happiness to our neighborhoods and yet they are being ignored,” Benitez said. “The city and federal government has done an okay job at providing financial assistance but they left out people who were not only out of a job because of stay at home orders but  are also undocumented. It seemed like the only way to make change was to do it ourselves.” 

Although majority of street vendors don’t qualify for federal aid or the $2 trillion stimulus package due to their legal status, Mayor Lori Lightfoot signed an executive order early April to aid undocumented immigrants and refugees communities during COVID-19 regardless of country of birth or current citizenship status. 

After reaching their initial goal of $15,000, the committee increased their goal to $65,000 to help as many families as possible. 

“I feel eternally grateful for every individual who has donated to our fund. This serves as proof that our communities will fight for each other tooth and nail and I am so excited,” Benitez added. 

Benitez hopes this fundraiser and story serves as an insight to street vendors’ frustrations and daily battles. 

“I hope that people look at street vendors as integral parts of our lives and not simply another person on the street. There are majors to be done and I hope every person who has donated has a memory with a street vendor [and] values them a little more,” Benitez said. 

Yesenia Barrera, donor for the Covid-19 Relief Fund for Street Vendors and resident of Little Village, came across the GoFundMe page through a Facebook page and felt compelled to donate despite facing her own economic challenges. 

“Most of the street vendors in Chicago are immigrants who are hustlers in my eyes,” Barrera said. “I [donated] money, because I know together we can make an impact in the lives of street vendors who are struggling to financially help their families or themselves.”

Growing up in Little Village, Barrera said familiar faces of street vendors’ have been seen selling down 26 St. for over ten years. 

“They have become a staple in our community and have contributed a taste of their rich culture. Instead of begging for money, street vendors use their cooking skills to share a bit of their cultural foods to the public,” Barrera said. 

She said helping street vendors in any way is like helping the community she grew up with.

“Street vendors continue sharing their foods and become part of the economy,” Barrera said. “They have so many skills that even they don’t realize they have because the American society undervalues them for not having an academic degree or formal certification. It’s crucial that as a community, street vendors receive financial literacy, entrepreneurial literacy, and legal guidance as they navigate through formalization of their business.”