The economy is growing and unemployment is low, but those factors haven't helped resolve a deepening crisis in some of America's most desirable destinations: homelessness. Across the country, a very visible homeless population can be seen panhandling outside major hotels and convention centers, where untold millions of dollars in tourism and convention business are at stake for local economies.
According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Authority, some 553,742 people experienced homelessness for at least one night in 2017, the most recent figures available, up by 0.7 percent over the year before and the first such increase tallied since 2010. West Coast cites like Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle are among top-tier meetings destinations that have seen a dramatic surge in the number of people living openly on the streets.
Pictures Tell the Story
Visit Seattle launched a crowdsourced campaign, asking hotels, restaurants, retailers and every downtown street facing business to send in photos of scenes just outside their doors that they felt were hurting their business. The bureau used the photos in a daily bombardment of messages to city officials, including the chief of police and the mayor. When DMO staff came across comments on TripAdvisor decrying the city's homeless problem, they forwarded those along, too.
How to address and resolve the crisis is a political lightning rod for some localities. This past November in San Francisco, voters approved Proposition C, imposing an extra 0.5 percent tax on companies with more than $50 million in annual revenue, with those funds supporting services for the city's homeless population. The decision came after months of divisive debate that pitted big businesses against city officials -- and each other.
In Seattle, a bill passed in May 2018 that would have levied a tax of $275 per employee on companies with at least $20 million in gross annual revenue to raise an estimated $48 million for needed services and affordable housing. But the tax, intended to take effect in the new year, proved so unpopular that it was repealed less than four weeks later.
Similarly, in San Diego, a measure called for raising the hotel tax to underwrite a long-sought expansion of the San Diego Convention Center and provide funding for homeless programs. That initiative, dubbed YES! For a Better San Diego, was projected to raise close to $4 billion over 42 years, with $1.8 billion earmarked for addressing homelessness. The measure failed to qualify for the November 2018 ballot.
Tom Norwalk, president and chief executive officer of Visit Seattle, doesn't need a federal report to tell him just how bad things have gotten in the Emerald City. He can see it for himself daily, he says, as he makes his way to and from his downtown office. Over the past decade, Norwalk has been engaging clients in conversation about the homeless issue and strategizing with city officials at every level, from the mayor's office to the police chief, on best practices for addressing the problem head-on.
"Aggressive panhandling and low-level street crime are unpleasant and disturbing scenes to visitors," Norwalk says. "Our streets are deteriorating to the point of being unsafe -- and that's a threat to our tourism and convention business. We have meeting planners who come in early, many times unannounced, who wander the city and see everything. We are not hiding the homeless problem -- we are talking about it and addressing it."
A CALL TO ACTION
The crisis has strained municipal and city budgets, not to mention the relationships between residents, community organizers and local businesses who strongly disagree on how to tackle the problem and where the funding should come from.
It also has challenged the role of destination marketing officials and their hospitality partners. Hamstrung by the slow wheels of government decision-making, and keenly aware of the growing competition for convention dollars and the threat to their city's reputation as a desirable destination, some convention and visitor bureaus are forging ahead with their own strategies.
In effect, destination marketing organizations have become lobbyists, doubling down on partnerships with local agencies, key city officials and nonprofit organizations. They've rallied the support of hotel suppliers, local restaurants and retailers, and successfully enlisted them in the effort to fight the homeless crisis at their front doors.
CLEAN & SAFE IN SAN FRANCISCO
Four years ago, San Francisco Travel had to face facts: The city's streets had deteriorated to the point where it could no longer wait for intervention from the local or federal government. The bureau launched Clean.Safe.365, a coalition of local business entities, including the Hotel Council of San Francisco, the Golden Gate Restaurant Association and the Chamber of Commerce, to shine a spotlight on the crisis and lobby for action on a political level.
In spring 2018, with San Francisco's mayoral race heating up, Clean.Safe.365 amplified its voice across the Bay Area via major media. The goal: ensure that all candidates in the running knew the long arm of the hospitality industry expected the homeless issue to be a front-and-center priority in the election. When London Breed was voted incoming mayor, the Hotel Council of San Francisco quickly issued a congratulatory message that implored her to support Clean.Safe.365:
"Our Clean.Safe.365 coalition," the message began, "whose members represent thousands of businesses and tens of thousands of employees who proudly voted in the June 5 election, are frustrated with City Hall's failed recipe of more funding, more programs and more taxes. In fact, our streets have gotten worse in recent years, despite the hundreds of millions of dollars San Francisco spends on programs, policing and clean-up. We now turn to you, Mayor-Elect Breed. We need you and your administration to provide immediate and sustainable solutions for San Francisco street behavior."
For its part, San Francisco Travel wields formidable financial clout, which the city government can't ignore. In October, the agency projected 2018 to be a ninth straight year of record-breaking visitor volume and spending, estimating that the city will have drawn some 26.1 million visitors spending a whopping $9.4 billion, up 2.4 percent in visitors and 3.6 percent in spend year-over-year.
"Yes, our actions have been aggressive," says Joe D'Alessandro, president and chief executive officer of San Francisco Travel. "Finding a solution for this problem benefits not just tourism to the city, it benefits our people who live here, who are coming downtown to work here every day."
PHOTO EVIDENCE IN SEATTLE
In Seattle, which has the third-largest population in the U.S., trailing only Los Angeles and New York City, the homeless population is up roughly 4 percent. That's based on a one-night headcount in Kings County in January 2018, which found 12,112 people sleeping on the streets. Even more troubling, the number of homeless people living downtown had increased by 15 percent since a one-night count conducted in 2016.
Frustrated but determined to get City Hall's attention, Visit Seattle launched a grassroots blitz several years ago called "See and Send It" that crowdsourced the campaign. The DMO asked hotels, restaurants, retailers and every downtown street-facing business to send in photos of scenes just outside their doors that they felt were hurting their business. The bureau used the photographic evidence in a daily bombardment of messages to city officials, including the chief of police and the mayor. When DMO staff came across comments on TripAdvisor decrying the city's homeless problem, they forwarded those along, too.
"We were bold back then, but it certainly helped to shift the conversation to bring attention to the civility on the streets of Seattle," says Norwalk. "Fast-forward to today, and we are still active, and we still work as the outside voice of visitors, because it's the most honest feedback we can give. But, what we are doing differently today is we are being much more up front with our clients that we have a homeless issue, and that we are going to try and mitigate it before it becomes an issue for them. We are still a long way off, but we are on the right track."
Seattle has a lot riding on its image as a welcoming convention destination. In August 2018, the city broke ground on an addition to the Washington State Convention Center that will add 440,000 square feet of meeting and exhibit space, bringing the center's total to nearly 1 million square feet and allow it to bid on larger, citywide events. Work is expected to finish in 2022.
"It is going to be an economic catalyst for Seattle, because we now have the ability to house bigger gatherings," Norwalk emphasizes. "That business could be compromised if we don't keep focused on the homeless crisis. Tourism is a fragile thing."
THE POWER OF ALLIANCES
In the seven months since Mayor Breed took office, San Francisco Travel has made sure that concerns about the city's streets are squarely in her crosshairs. Bureau execs meet regularly with the mayor and her staff to discuss progress and concerns.
"Weeks after she took office, Breed added significant new police foot patrols, increased the budget for power-washing the sidewalks and streets, and increased funding for mental health issues," says D'Alessandro. "These are all things we lobbied for, and we are seeing encouraging solutions. It's a huge mistake if the hospitality industry does not get involved. We have a responsibility to make sure our destinations are better places. We also have a responsibility to make sure our communities are healthy for the people who live in them."
To that end, there's more work to be done. Last year, the bureau hired retired San Francisco police captain Michael Deeley as a safety consultant. He is tasked with creating a safer environment around Moscone Center and downtown's hotels.
In Seattle, police chief Carmen Best is on Tom Norwalk's speed dial. In fact, Best has been sitting in on Visit Seattle's monthly board of directors meetings for several years, and her office gets regular monthly convention updates on which groups are coming to town. Keeping the police in the loop, says Norwalk, gives them the opportunity to plan ahead to increase patrols -- including on bike and horse -- around the convention center and area hotels.
When convention planners are in town for site inspections, Norwalk encourages them to meet with Best and her police captains so they can put a face to the city's police force and have a candid conversation about what they have witnessed on the streets, what concerns them and what resources the city can deploy to address those concerns. "Homelessness and the whole issue of security has really risen to the top of planners' checklists right now," says Norwalk. "Civility issues and ugly street scenes are up there with housing and transportation."
LOCAL TOURISM LENDS A HAND
Across the country, tourism officials and convention centers are working together to support neighbors in need. Following are just a few of the many programs that are making a difference.
• Explore St. Louis has developed several turnkey programs that make it easy for groups to contribute to local community resources, such as the St. Louis Dream Center, which operates a soup kitchen and food pantry, providing hot meals as well as showers and haircuts to community members in need.
• The Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau teamed up with the Downtown Memphis Convention Center last January to help fund Work Local Memphis. The innovative program, launched in 2016, transports job-seeking panhandlers to cleanup sites twice a week, with the aim to reduce urban blight. Workers are provided with food, a day's wages, and additional services and counseling as needed. "The impact of this program is visible all across our downtown," says Kevin Kane, president and CEO of the Memphis CVB.
• The Minneapolis Convention Center donates all untouched leftover food from events to People Serving People, Minnesota's largest family-focused agency for helping the homeless. Just blocks from U.S. Bank Stadium, PSP's shelter houses 350 to 370 people on any given night and serves more than 250,000 meals annually.
• The Ernest N. Morial Convention Center and New Orleans & Company, the Big Easy's convention and visitors bureau, each contribute $250,000 toward the annual $1.5 million operational cost of the city's new 12,000-square-foot, 100-bed shelter, which opened on the second floor of the former Veterans Affairs Hospital Building in September 2018. "The Ernest N. Morial New Orleans Exhibition Hall Authority has supported over $75 million in external programs in the last 18 months that improve our city's quality of life and our visitors' experience," says Melvin Rodrigue, president of the facility. "This low-barrier shelter [meaning it is open to all who need it] is among the most important and innovative."
• Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City donates space annually for Project Homeless Connect, a one-day event that began in San Francisco in 2004 to help the homeless and has since spread to other cities including Denver and Washington, D.C. The event draws more than 500 volunteers who assist homeless people with services such as haircuts, immunizations, medical and dental care, substance-abuse counseling, library cards, housing services and employment assistance, as well as legal and financial aid.