LOS ANGELES, Calif. — Illegal sidewalk vendors in the Florence-Firestone area drew attention at a Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors meeting today.

Hundreds of vendors, selling everything from fruit cocktail to cell phones, are a health and safety hazard, residents and small business owners told the Board of Supervisors. Some community advocates said the vendors were struggling entrepreneurs, creating their own jobs to pay their rent and support their families in an era of high unemployment.

“Street vending is a symptom of macroeconomic issues,” said Rudy Espinoza, Executive Director of Leadership for Urban Renewal Now. “A lot of the vendors are older and chronically unemployed,” Espinoza said, “and ultimately decide, ‘Hey, I need to create my own job … to pay my bills and take care of my family.”‘

Owners paying rent for storefronts along the roughly three-quarter mile stretch of Compton Avenue between 60th Street and Slauson Avenue say they may lose their own livelihoods if street vending isn’t better regulated.

“It’s overwhelming, the amount of vendors that are on the street,” Antonio Moreno, a small business owner who claims to be representing more than 40 businesses in the area, told the board through a translator. “At this point, I’m in danger of closing my business.”

Walnut Park resident Efren Martinez said that some business owners had been threatened by vendors to stop hassling those on the street and “get back into their business or else they will come back to ashes.”

Residents said they are also worried about health hazards posed by vendors who cook and handle food without access to clean water. Vendors sell meat, milk, eggs, fruit and cheese, sometimes setting up chairs to create makeshift restaurants, while others hawk hard goods like clothing and electronics, undercutting the prices of local business owners.

Advocates for the vendors say they also want to see healthy food, but argue that street vendors provide a valuable service to communities that suffer from a dearth of grocery stores and make the streets safer at night, when other businesses shut down.

The debate today was prompted by Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas’ recommendation that the county look at strengthening ordinances to better regulate illegal vending and what he called “extended yard sales” that amount to flea markets.

Ridley-Thomas didn’t outline a specific proposal, but Capt. Joseph Gooden of the Los Angeles County sheriff’s Century Station said the Sheriff’s Department was already working with the Department of Public Health, the District Attorney’s Office and others to try and find a solution to what he called a systemic problem.

“We needed to have more bite from a county ordinance,” Gooden said, “something that would give my deputies the ability to enforce this.”

Under current regulations, deputies must rely on public health officials, who aren’t available around the clock, to inspect and police vendors, Gooden said. He would like deputies to have the authority to independently issue citations and seize equipment put to illegal use.

A lack of law enforcement resources is also an issue. Funding for a team of five deputies that focused on quality of life issues like illegal vending and prostitution was cut almost a year ago, Gooden said.

But even when his deputies are able to conduct sweeps of the area with public health officials — now usually once a quarter — and shut down individual vendors, “someone else takes up that space,” Gooden said. He said there is a larger organization behind the individual carts and stalls that line Compton Avenue. A resident who has registered numerous complaints with the county agrees.

“It’s sophisticated,” said resident Mark Walker. “They’ve got distribution, transportation, advertising.” They pick up and drop off equipment to vendors at large public spaces like hospitals and banks and supply vendors with food, Walker said. “They’re not naive.”

Supervisor Michael Antonovich suggested that any new ordinance might differ across communities. “Not all county unincorporated areas experience the same issues,” Antonovich said, asking those working on the problem to be sensitive to the unique concerns of individual communities. He used parking regulations as an example of a county ordinance tailored to suit differing needs.

The board directed staffers to draft an ordinance and set a public hearing on the matter.