Homelessness is a reality that has been exacerbated by various economic and public health crises. San Francisco is one destination that thinks it can find a solution.
The first thing visitors to San Francisco realize is the scourge of the opioid epidemic may be to some as emblematic of the city’s identity as electric scooters, the Golden Gate Bridge, and sky-high rents.
Homelessness isn’t a topic that many destinations want to address given the stigma often attached to homeless populations.
But the tourism industry in San Francisco, which has one of the United States’ largest homeless populations, is trying to find solutions, including putting the homeless to work in tourism.
These efforts are rolling out as voters on Tuesday approved by a 60 percent to 40 percent margin so-called Proposition C, a measure that will authorize the city to fund housing and homelessness services by increasing taxes on certain business depending on their annual revenues.
Poor street conditions often deter travelers from venturing to areas in need of tourism spending, and homelessness and street conditions have consistently been tourists’ top complaints, said Joe D’Alessandro, president and CEO of San Francisco Travel, the city’s tourism board.
San Francisco Travel is tasked with marketing the destination and making the most of what the city offers despite its shortcomings. San Francisco Travel isn’t running a consumer-facing campaign on homelessness awareness, but a new association, CleanSafe365, was formed earlier this year to advocate in city hall for solutions to homelessness and street crime to make city streets safer for visitors. The Hotel Council of San Francisco, a non-profit trade association that represents the city’s hotels, is spearheading the association and working with San Francisco Travel.
CleanSafe365 wants the city’s new mayor, London Breed, to declare a crisis on city streets and increase accountability for what is done and how money is spent to address street conditions. The association also aims to get more homeless people into programs that put them on paths to jobs in retail, hospitality, and tourism. Breed, who took office in July and is San Francisco’s first African American female mayor, has made addressing the homeless situation a priority.
“Our goal with CleanSafe365 is to bring in experts to educate our businesses on how we can help make streets safe and how we can work with the mayor to address this,” said Kevin Carroll, the Hotel Council’s executive director. “We’re supporting solutions but not solving the problem.”
D’Alessandro said 96 percent of all visitors still say they want to come back. “That is really high for our industry,” he said. “But visitors were telling us that cost, traffic, and street conditions were their leading complaints. Homelessness is only a small portion of the complaints, it’s more about petty crime that visitors are worried about. Some businesses have been hurt because tourists perceive some streets as unsafe.”
CleanSafe365 has also partnered with the Tenderloin Community Benefit District to tackle the street situation. Other organization such as the CHEFS program and the Rising Up Campaign are examples of groups working to clean up the city’s streets.
Raising Awareness of Homelessness
San Francisco’s homeless population numbered about 6,900 in 2017, according to data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The area has the United State’s sixth largest homeless population, after cities such as New York City, Los Angeles, and Seattle.
More than half a million people were considered homeless in the United States in 2017, and the number of people experiencing homelessness across the country increased by about 1 percent last year, the first time in seven years that the country’s homeless population grew.
San Francisco Travel began putting information cards in its visitor centers and in city hotels this year that explain the homeless situation and offer examples of how visitors can get involved.
Both D’Alessandro and Carroll acknowledged that homelessness likely won’t be completely eliminated, and the city still has a lot to do on this front.
The hospitality industry is generally more accessible than other industries to homeless people trying to enter the workforce. But employees at six Marriott hotels are also currently on strike for better pay and working conditions, and the city will also need to address these strikes and its labor shortage if it wants to reduce homelessness rate.
“Homelessness is definitely an issue but it’s also the behavior on the street that may not be related to homelessness,” said Carroll. “The people causing problems on streets aren’t always homeless. We’ve really done a lot of work to educate our members on what the city is doing. A lot of our hotels already have long-term relationships with non-profits to provide toiletries.”
Carroll said different visitors have different perspectives on homelessness and street conditions depending on where they’re coming from. “People will fill out feedback and will say they’re concerned about what they saw and they’ll also say this publicly on social media,” he said.
Some good news: Breed has already announced an increase in funding for mental health programs and treatment which benefit the homeless population, and this is the largest increase in such funding for a U.S. city in the past year.
Many destinations don’t have a progressive political leader like Breed, who has made it a point to show up unannounced in disadvantaged neighborhoods to check out what’s really happening on city streets. Many places also don’t have a funding model that offers more independence from local government.
“You just need to figure out a way to co-exist with your government, said D’Alessandro. “I’m a fan of the saying ‘if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu,’ and you have to have that seat and show how you’re helping.”
San Francisco’s homeless population is about the same as it was 20 years ago, said D’Alessandro, and realities such as the opioid crisis have been an obstacle in getting more people off the streets.
“Homelessness is hard to solve locally or regionally, but if we find solutions maybe we could export them elsewhere,” said D’Alessandro.
San Francisco Travel began advocating for solutions to homelessness last year during the city’s mayoral race to replace its late mayor, Ed Lee. As Lee’s successor, Breed’s focus on homelessness has ushered in a new climate that helped San Francisco Travel get involved, said D’Alessandro.
But the city’s tourism improvement district, a tourism board funding model based on public-private partnerships, has also been key.
In 2009, San Francisco Travel created a tourism improvement district funding model that effectively made the organization less beholden to the local government, which at the time wasn’t doing as much to address homelessness. The organization’s funding now comes from local hotel revenues and the private sector and San Francisco Travel has more liberty to advocate for solutions to homelessness and safer streets that it feels are important to address for tourism growth.
Proposition C will be the largest tax increase in the city’s history and it will raise an estimated $250 to $300 million per year and boost the city’s homeless relief budget by about 78 percent.
San Francisco Travel had taken a neutral position and there was quite a bit of opposition.
One of the arguments against the proposition is that it would likely cause some businesses to relocate to avoid the tax hike and that could disproportionately impact the retail and hospitality industries where many homeless people try to secure jobs.
Carroll said the Hotel Council opposed the proposition, and the proposition would essentially double the amount of city funding spent on helping the homeless population. “Hotels are large employers and [Proposition C] would be impacting them and we took a position to oppose based on what our members were feeling as well,” he said.
The Hotel Council and tourism industry are still open to other plans that wouldn’t only target the largest businesses to fund the increase, said Carroll. “It’s more about the sheer amount that’s being looked at and if the tax increase was more shared that would be a different story,” he said.
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Photo credit: San Francisco Travel is partnering with local businesses to help reduce the homeless population. Pictured is a homeless man at Pier 1 in San Francisco. sergejf / Flickr