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.
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.