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Downtown hoteliers fear growing street homelessness could cast a dark cloud over one of the city’s key tourism hot spots.
Homelessness has more than doubled on downtown streets the past two years, according to a business group’s monthly count, a reality that’s confronted locals as well as tourists.
Now hoteliers are warning the city: Do more to address the problem, or risk hurting downtown tourism.
“We need action today,” Tourism Authority CEO Joe Terzi said.
So on top of the obvious moral motivations to help downtown’s growing homeless population, city leaders must now grapple with a potential vulnerability for one of its most crucial industries. Hotel-tax hauls alone are the city’s third-largest source of revenue.
In interviews with Voice of San Diego, managers at five downtown hotels described tense daily confrontations between hotel staff and homeless people, constant panhandling outside their doors and complaints from overwhelmed visitors.
They shared stories of a convention planner accosted by a homeless person and visitors, out-of-state meeting groups and organizers balking at areas packed with homeless people and their temporary encampments.
The manager at the Manchester Grand Hyatt recounted the hotel’s frustrations with a woman who repeatedly hassled front desk workers, once even lobbing items at them. Another woman threw hot coffee on a US Grant security worker who tried to usher her out and later scratched him, the manager of that hotel said.
And at the Marriott Marquis along Harbor Drive, a manager said a homeless man recently snuck into a conference room and slept underneath a stage. He awoke during a corporate presentation, startling guests when he emerged.
“This is just one little example out of dozens, hundreds,” Marriott Marquis general manager Tuni Kyi said.
The hoteliers acknowledge they don’t have an easy solution. Some pointed to controversial policies in cities such as Honolulu, which has reduced its homeless population in tourist haunts by effectively barring homelessness in those areas despite criticism from the American Civil Liberties Union and the federal government. Others talked about the need for increased mental health services for the homeless or greater police presence downtown.
Terzi said hoteliers want to be part of the solution. He recently said the industry might be open to a hotel-tax increase that tackles both the waterfront Convention Center expansion they’ve long championed and aid for the homeless.
Terzi said hoteliers emphasized a broader willingness to support city efforts to combat homelessness however they can at a meeting with Mayor Kevin Faulconer last month.
“Help us understand what we can do to help,” Terzi said.
Stacie Spector, the mayor’s recently hired senior adviser for housing solutions, attended the mayor’s meeting with hoteliers. She said Faulconer and his staff brainstormed with hoteliers about potentially bolstering public-private partnerships and ways to increase information sharing about resources and efforts to help the homeless.
“There was a general understanding that no one entity, person, organization or business can fix this alone,” Spector wrote in an email to VOSD.
It’s unclear if the problem has negatively affected downtown hotels’ bottom lines yet. Hotel revenue was up countywide through October. Still, downtown hoteliers emphasized to Faulconer and Spector that they feel stuck with an intractable problem they worry could eventually hurt their business.
Doug Korn, who manages The US Grant, said he scrambled months ago to accommodate a community outreach group that nearly canceled its meeting when a planner who came to town to finalize event details confessed she didn’t feel safe outside.
“It was a $500,000 piece of business,” said Korn, who persuaded the group to stay after a series of conference calls and promises to beef up security.
Spector said the mayor’s office understands the urgency of downtown hoteliers’ concerns and plans to touch base with them again soon.
“We must act fast and get in front of this now, before the environment takes a negative business turn,” Spector said.
Yet Korn and others fret about the impact increased homelessness downtown is already having.
“When they come to visit San Diego and they go home, their story is going to be one of, ‘The city’s overrun with homeless,’” said Matt Adams of the Manchester Grand Hyatt. “They’re not coming back. They’re choosing not to come back to the city.”
Indeed, tourists’ comments about downtown homelessness abound on Twitter and TripAdvisor.
Many TripAdvisor reviewers noted the homeless folks surrounding downtown hotels but the majority who left comments didn’t rule out a return visit.
And Jacob Giles, the Florida visitor who tweeted about the volume of San Diego’s homeless problem while he attended an October convention, told me the large numbers – while stunning – wouldn’t deter him from coming back.
But two other tourists did say exploding homelessness will keep them from staying downtown again.
Sue Mostert and her husband have visited San Diego many times since the late 1980s. The South African couple stayed in the Gaslamp Quarter this June, around the same time they visited two years ago, and were shocked by how the area had changed.
“The increase in numbers was overwhelming and yes, we were approached and asked for money,” Mostert wrote in an email. “Around the Horton Plaza, we encountered many talking to themselves, shouting, seemingly at nothing and sometimes coming up to us.”
A Dubai couple left downtown San Diego vowing never to return after a visit last summer.
Lama Altaweel, who once was so taken with San Diego that she and her fiancé considered a summer home here, recalled crying when she saw a homeless woman feeding a baby with a dirty bottle. Altaweel also bemoaned her fiancé’s conclusion that she couldn’t shop at Horton Plaza alone at night because of the homeless folks gathered there.
“I’ve seen homeless people before but not like this,” she said.