The Homeless Are Coming! Cancel That Meeting! — UPDATED



By Robert McGarvey


Bar the doors: the homeless are coming and they will mess with your next business trip, definitely also your next convention.

Who wants to share a sidewalk with a stinky, dirty bum?

That’s a takeaway from recent news, out of San Francisco, that a major medical association cancelled a meeting over the city’s homeless population (estimated at 7500, in a city with a population of 870,000).  

“It’s the first time that we have had an out-and-out cancellation over the issue, and this is a group that has been coming here every three or four years since the 1980s,” Joe D’Alessandro, president and CEO of S.F. Travel, the city’s convention bureau, told the San Francisco Chronicle.

The Chronicle story continued: “The doctors group told the San Francisco delegation that while they loved the city, postconvention surveys showed their members were afraid to walk amid the open drug use, threatening behavior and mental illness that are common on the streets.”

There are factual errors in this – more below – but, first, let’s accept a reality: cities have increasing homeless populations.  I live in Phoenix – where the homeless count is estimated at 5605 across Maricopa County but most are in Phoenix, typically downtown, because many parts of the county give them the boot. I live in downtown and every day I talk with homeless people.  This week I am working at a church that will feed 150 in a “heat respite” day, on a day where the temperature will go above 110.

Los Angeles, where the medical group is believed to be scheduling its meeting, has a homeless population of 57,794.  They are especially numerous downtown and in Venice Beach.  

New York City has a big homeless population. So does Philadelphia.  So does Boston.

Washington DC, the nation’s capital, has 6904 homeless.

I can’t think of a big city that doesn’t have lots of visible homeless.

As a nation we are failing to provide safety nets to many and one result is a burgeoning homeless population.

Here’s advice: if a group insists on meeting sans homeless, cross off every city of any size. Go to a resort.  Or the Las Vegas Strip. (Las Vegas has an estimated 6490 homeless but I have never seen one on the Strip.  If they are there they are wearing shorts, a too tight top, and sunglasses so they fit in.)

Hawaii, by the way, has a substantial homeless population. Don’t think paradise offers a safe harbor.

Just about every expert agrees that, nationally, the homeless population is climbing upwards.

Should groups flee the grunge – or should they come to see and smell what life is like for the have-nots?  That’s the choice of every group. It’s not for me to dictate.

But, personally, every day that I walk among the homeless I learn and, particularly, I learn that small acts of human kindness make a lot of difference to those who have basically nothing. I am put in mind of this from the Bible: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40, 45, NIV).

Back to the alleged meeting cancellation in San Francisco. Well, it turns out it just ain’t so. Here is more from D’Alessandro in a different publication: “For clarification, they didn’t actually pull or cancel the convention. We were just one of their finalist cities, and they chose to go somewhere else. And they actually have two upcoming years that they’re already booked in San Francisco. The group itself does not want to release their name, so I want to respect that. But when they gave us their reasons for choosing another city, their main issues were cost, that it was expensive in San Francisco, and also they said that the condition of the streets was not what they had hoped to see.” (Emphasis added.)

Oh my. Literally dozens of stories ran, in publications around the country, that San Francisco’s homeless population had cost it a major medical meeting and it is not so. Not even a little.  There never was a confirmed meeting to cancel.  Never.

I have talked with many meeting planners over the past 20 years.  They have also told me they crossed off cities as possible locations because of crime (Manhattan in the 1980s, for instance).  Worries about terrorism are a related concern that can trigger an unwillingness to meet. Occasionally it’s been lack of airline lift. But the most common reason a city gets eliminated usually has been money.  When hotel room prices, on average, cross a line, that spells trouble for the city in attracting meetings. Manhattan has been a case in point for years.

San Francisco has now crossed the line. A few years ago Bloomberg ran a story headlined “San Francisco Hotels Are the World’s Priciest.”

Update: Reader Chris McGinnis (in comments) pointed out that the Bloomberg story got a lot of this wrong.

Nonetheless, San Francisco continues to rank among the most expensive cities for hotels (even if not the most expensive) and this is a problem for many meeting planners. Which is what D’Alesandro said in that Travel Weekly follow up interview.  

If San Francisco wants more big meetings it has to lower hotel costs. That’s the simple answer.

Solving the homelessness epidemic, well, that’s not simple.  But the homeless aren’t costing Baghdad by the Bay meetings.  They just aren’t.

7 thoughts on “The Homeless Are Coming! Cancel That Meeting! — UPDATED”

  1. While I certainly wouldn’t cancel coming to a convention in S.F. because of the homeless, you really can’t say the homeless problem in S.F. is comparable to NYC. There is NO comparison. The homeless problem in S.F. is a mess– they are everywhere and they can be aggressive in their panhandling. It is entirely different in cities like NYC. The climate is part of the issue, but S.F. has become a magnet for the homeless in part because of lax policing.
    I live in a city (much smaller than SF or NYC) that has made a priority to get the homeless off the streets and into shelters, and the effort has been largely effective. (you’re right- there is no easy solution) It’s a win-win– downtown is much more attractive and at least by perception, safer, and the homeless have much better living conditions.

  2. The City has been my favorite destination for sixty years, apologies to NYC. If American cities are problematic, try Montreal or Vancouver.

  3. I personally know of two organizations who recently hosted conventions in San Francisco and the members have collectively decided not to return. It is not just the open drug use, but overall filth and lack of feeling safe. Just got back from Vancouver. I saw homeless, but they were not aggressive and the city was spotless

  4. I’ll take San Francisco over any other city in the US. It has a beauty that can only be appreciated by walking the streets and observing others. Bring it on!

  5. That Bloomberg story about SF hotels being most expensive in the world was debunked, too. Seems the reporter checked rates over a period that included the Super Bowl, which of course artificially inflated them. So that’s two fake news stories about the SF travel scene. Oh, well…

  6. Good column – and I appreciate you pointing out the humanity of the issue and issues with the reporting. I live in NYC and attend many conferences around the US. I have to say that the homeless situation in SF is different than other cities. People are more aggressive in SF and the streets feel less safe, in part bc they are often desolate (as Jane Jacobs said many years ago, You need ‘eyes on the street to enhance safety.’

  7. I work since 1996 full time in tourism as a driver and as a guide. I hear nonstop the anger and disgust and dismay and fear from the tourists about the vagrants, drunks and druggies. Some have told me that they would not come again because their female STAFF members didn’t feel safe, but it’s another way to say that the male boss is afraid, too — as he should be. Staying at the Palace! It’s gorgeous inside and zombie Night of the Living Dead outside. They are shocked. I am yawning. No use to talk about the SFPD having their hands tied. Any one with experience in life knows it has to do with the government and its criminal neglect.

    The locals like myself are inured to it. We just avoid trouble as usual. We do not approach them… we value our own lives.
    One girl of ten told me she was fed up with the male beggar outside her Hotel the Palace. She put a quarter in his cup and took a $5 out and he didn’t notice it. I started laughing. She said, “Don’t tell my Dad!”
    I said, “it’s funny! But young lady, these guys are dangerous and could jump up and grab you and hurt you if you even go near them, never mind take something from them. They are NUTS. Remember stay far far far away!”
    She said, “Yeah, I know. They just want the money to drink. But they make me mad because they ruin our trip. “

    So there you have it. A girl sees through their game and foils one, which is funny, but the danger never ends. Yet we are supposed to feel sorry for them, not for people who work ungodly hours and don’t drink or do drugs! Infranconinophiles, unite!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *