The City’s panhandler issue needs united action 

I’m not running for office. Sometimes I feel like I’m one of the few who isn’t. I’ve dropped in on a few mayoral forums and there’s an avalanche of campaign literature in my mailbox every night when I go home.

Almost without exception when the candidates talk and when the public asks questions and when you check out their websites, the issue of homelessness comes up over and over again.

Some candidates slot it in under quality of life or link it to affordable-housing plans, but it’s there in all its thorny, intractable, why-can’t-we-find-a-solution complexity.

Whoever wins in November, this will probably be their biggest challenge, as it was for each of their predecessors. It has been an issue on our radar for more than 40 years. I have a dog-eared copy of our “San Francisco Convention and Visitors Study” released in May 1971 that listed “hippies, beggars” as the second thing most disliked about our destination, right after traffic congestion and traffic problems. At the time 40 percent of our visitors found nothing that they didn’t like about San Francisco.

We’re no longer so lucky. While an astounding 98.3 of survey respondents to our most recent visitor survey said that they would return to San Francisco, one in four of them cited homelessness/panhandling as their most common complaint. This issue was also the most vexing for residents — 32 percent of our residents ranked this as the top issue facing us in the annual CityBeat poll released in March by the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce.

So as San Francisco’s official destination marketing organization, what does the San Francisco Travel Association do to reduce the number of complaints we receive from visitors and conventioneers?

Well, first of all, we need to separate homelessness from panhandling. Members of our law enforcement and social services communities with firsthand knowledge of the issue say that the vast majority of our homeless population is not aggressive and does not besiege our visitors for money.

Panhandling is a skilled job for some people who are not necessarily homeless. Many of our visitors subsidize behavior that is not acceptable. We are constantly hearing reports of people being stalked the moment they exit a hotel lobby. The City’s Homeless Outreach Team, street ambassadors from the various community benefit districts, hotel security and the San Francisco Police Department have all stepped up their efforts, but we need to educate our visitors to “just say no” and channel their generosity more effectively toward treatment programs and affordable housing if they want to be part of the solution. We cannot allow walking down a street in San Francisco to be uncomfortable for anyone — whether they are a visitor or a resident.

Secondly, many of the candidates agree that shelter does not equal a home. We all know the difference. How do we transform the homeless into residents with a permanent address, supportive services and people who care about them? The Care Not Cash program has been a good start. Are we confident that other programs we are currently investing resources in are working? Should we support adoption of Laura’s Law that would allow individuals who need treatment to receive it on an outpatient basis, or “wet housing” and programs like Denver’s “Better Way to Give”?

Some of the candidates are supportive of the programs I’ve mentioned. They’ve said what they’ll do to address the issue. Let’s hold them to their promises and let’s tackle this problem together. We cannot become complacent and more has to be done.

Joe D’Alessandro is president and CEO of the San Francisco Travel Association. He also serves on the California Travel and Tourism Commission and U.S. Travel Association board.

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