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Churros Vendors Brave Arrest to Make a Living in the Subway System

By  Heather Holland and Gustavo Solis | April 6, 2015 7:39am 

 Churros vendor Ana Alvarado says police confiscated and ate her churros after arresting her.
Churros Union Square Subway Station
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MIDTOWN EAST — Ana Alvarado has been arrested seven times for selling churros in subway stations over the past two-and-a-half years, but she continues to do it to feed herself and her two kids, she said.

Once police arrest Alvarado, they confiscate the churros and take her to the local precinct, where she’s had to watch police officers eat her churros in front of her, she said. Then they toss what’s left of her inventory into a bag, she said.

“They take the churros, saying they need them for evidence and that they will return them, but they don’t return them,” said Alvarado, in Spanish. “When they get to the precinct, whoever wants one grabs one, and whatever is left they put in a black bag.”

NYPD did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the alleged eating of churros or to inquiries about the protocol for handling food confiscated during arrests.

Many of those arrested are given fines, and some have been held in a precinct holding cell overnight, according to the vendors.

Alvarado, a 43-year-old Elmhurst resident and an immigrant from Ecuador, peddles the sugary treats from a cart every day during rush hour from 3:30 to 7 p.m. in various subway stations including Times Square, Grand Central and 59th Street in Manhattan and the 74th Street station in Queens, she said.

She purchases the churros daily, usually 200 at a time for $46, from a factory in Jamaica, and makes about $80 to $120 in profit per day, she said.

If she gets arrested at one station, she just moves to the next one on the list, she said.

“We live running and hiding from police,” said Alvarado, a single mother of two sons ages 9 and 12. “If I don’t work, who is going to feed my kids?”

On March 28, three women were arrested in Union Square subway station for selling churros without a license to sell food, police said.

One of the women, 52-year-old Maria Yunga, was selling on the L train platform for about 20 minutes at about 11 p.m., when police approached her and asked her what she was doing, and then arrested her.

"When I go out [to sell in the subways], I have to go with my heart in my mouth," Yunga said in Spanish. "I don't know if the police are going to grab me."

She is due in court on May 14, she said.

Regarding the arrests, police cited law that deems it “unlawful for any individual to act as a food vendor without having first obtained a license" from the city Health Department.”

But in general, it is illegal to do any commercial activity in the subway system without authorization from the MTA, and obstructing the flow of traffic is also not permitted, according to MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz.

All three women arrested in Union Square were given desk appearance tickets, which means they are charged and given a summons that requires them to appear in court on a certain date, sources said.

In court, they’re issued a fine that can range from $50 to $1,000, depending on how frequently they’ve been arrested for the violation, sources said.

Alvarado was arrested seven times between 2013 and 2014. She’s been arrested twice at Grand Central, twice at Times Square and twice at the 74th Street station and once in the 59th Street station, she said.

On some of those occasions, Alvarado was held in a holding cell at the precinct overnight while she awaited her summons, she said.

She could not recall exactly which precincts held her.

“I tell police, ‘please don’t take me. You are taking food away from my children,’” Alvarado said. “Do you think it is just for them to arrest somebody for working and throw them in a cell with drug dealers and prostitutes?”

Alvarado only sells the churros in subway stations during the winter, and moves her operation to local parks when it gets warmer, she said.

Police have stopped her in parks too, but in those cases, she’s only been fined and not arrested, she said.

“[This type of arrests] is something that is incredibly common,” said Basma Eid, an organizer at The Street Vendor Project, an organization made up of 1,300 vendor members that’s fighting to end the criminalization of street vending.

Alvarado is a member of the group, but Yunga is not.

“And a lot of times people are treated violently when it comes to being arrested," Eid said. "They don’t want to be breaking the law, but at the end of the day, they’re trying to make money. A lot of times it’s their livelihood.”

Alvarado, who moved to the states 20 years ago, first started selling churros after her husband left her and their two kids several years ago.

She’s been making up for the lost income by cleaning houses in Queens by day, and selling churros by evening.

“My husband left us and he doesn’t pay so now what am I supposed to do?” she said. “The best thing I found was selling churros because I make $80 to $90 in one day, and I can still take care of my kids.”

The business allows her to accommodate her children’s schedules. When the kids aren’t in school, they follow her to the subway stations, she said.

Running into other churros vendors in the subway system is common, and although they’re not on a first name basis, she knows many of them by face, Alvarado said.

They don’t work together, but they’re courteous about spreading themselves out so it’s not too competitive. Many of them also warn each other if they see police, she said.

“The police laugh at the vendors,” she said. “I would like the police to put their hand on their heart and see that I am working to provide for my children.”

Following DNAinfo New York's initial report of arrests of churros vendors last month, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer wrote a letter to the MTA on April 2, urging the agency to provide legitimate venues for small businesses to work in subway stations.

"It appears the the Metropolitan Transportation Authority currently makes no allowances for mobile concessions," Brewer's letter states. "This is a shame, since a program allowing the MTA to selectively allow for mobile vendors could have many benefits for commuters and entrepreneurs alike.

"Immigrant entrepreneurs in our city need more avenues to support themselves and their families without creating a rap sheet, and there is clearly a market for mobile concessions in subways stations."