S.F. Cracks Down on Homeless

Hoteliers, CVB support initiative reducing monthly cash benefit for homeless adults

By: Robert Carlsen

Nobody was more pleased with the passage of San Francisco’s homeless initiative, Proposition N, than the city’s tourism industry.

The initiative, named Care Not Cash, essentially reduces the monthly general assistance cash benefit for 2,900 homeless adults from about $395 to $59. The savings goes directly into food and shelter programs.

Although John Marks, president of the San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the initiative was not perfect, it was at least the start of something good. He said the problem of homelessness was not being addressed by the city government and, as a result, the number of homeless is now up to an estimated 8,000 to 15,000.

Marks says the initiative essentially “takes the cash off the streets” and uses it for helping the truly needy. Abusers of the system will hopefully get the message that there’s no more free handouts, he said.

Because of the condition of the streets, tourists and convention goers are turning away from the City By The Bay.

In fact, according to PKF Consulting, San Francisco’s occupancy rate fell 11.5% in the first half of 2002. Other big cities’ occupancies fell, too, but not by as much 7.6% in Chicago, 3.6% in New York and 7.7% in Los Angeles.

Supporting Proposition N was the Hotel Council of San Francisco, which pooled resources and bought billboard ad space to plead their case. The hoteliers’ theme was “We Want Change.”

“We can no longer deny we have a problem,” said Peter Ells, general manager of the Renaissance Parc Fifty-Five Hotel and secretary/treasurer of the council. “We had to try something because the problem was affecting our bookings and revenues.”

Even travel agents have noticed an increase of panhandlers, drunks and drug addicts in San Francisco.

Syble Breihan, owner of Custom Travel Service in Yucca Valley, Calif., had clients visiting San Francisco recently, and said they noticed people sleeping in doorways right next to luxury hotels.

“A lot of big cities have this problem, but San Francisco certainly has more than its fair share,” Breihan said.

Two months ago, Carol Kennedy, owner of Travel In Style in Placentia, Calif., escorted a school group to San Francisco and noticed right away that the homeless were shoulder to shoulder in the downtown area. Luckily, she said, her group was booked at the Radisson in Fisherman’s Wharf, which has fewer homeless.

Meanwhile, despite the homeless problem, San Francisco for the 10th consecutive year recently won the No. 1 U.S. City designation from the readers of Conde Nast Traveler magazine.