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.

We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

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.

Trip Advisor Comment on Downtown Homelessness 1


Trip Advisor Comment on Downtown Homelessness

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.

    This article relates to: Homelessness, Must Reads, News, Tourism Economy

    Written by Lisa Halverstadt

    Lisa writes about San Diego city and county governments. She welcomes story tips and questions. Contact her directly at or 619.325.0528.

    Don Wood
    Don Wood subscriber

    This is a demand by the hoteliers that their minions at city hall find a way to rid the streets of homeless people, so that only

    middle income and rich people can walk around downtown, so that the tourist will feel safer. Of course the rich hotel owners

    aren't offering to spend any of their own money on such an effort. They are saving up millions in profits to fund the

    hotel expansion TOT tax increase initiative they are planning to have their minions put on the ballot next year. They

    display an incredible attitude of entitlement to increased city tax subsidies, perhaps because they've always got their

    way in the past.  Guess we'll see if times are changing their the next tax increase ballot measure goes before city


    Bruce Higgins
    Bruce Higgins subscriber

    @Bit-watcher So I'm going to respectfully disagree.  The only way to change the homeless situation is to keep it front and center in the public's eye.  When enough people want a change they will pressure their representatives on the city council, county supervisors, and state representatives to take action.  The press has a vital role in making this happen, hence all the press this issue has been getting over the last year.

    Bruce Higgins
    Bruce Higgins subscriber

    We thought about passing a tax that would benefit a Billionaire sports team owner and rejected it.  How about raising taxes to pay for improvements that would benefit all San Diegans?  For the price of a stadium we could solve the homeless issue, solve the hunger issue, fix our roads, help our elderly, take a really big bite out of the pension issue.  We could become a region that is known nationally as a city that cares for its residents and does something about it.

    If we are serious about solving the homeless issue we have to agree on a common approach.  No more competing with each other over influence, money and overlapping services.  Controlling the purse strings is key.  Right now there is too much in fighting; each group defending its castle and ignoring the others.  It is a major reason we are so far behind the rest of the country in addressing this issue.

    Elaine Rosas
    Elaine Rosas

    There was a BIG meeting on 11/16/2016 with the Continuum of Care Council & HUD AND ALL THE SERVICE PROVIDERS WHO'S MISSION is to end homelessness. I guess Stacie Spector didn't see it was worth going to

    Chris Brewster
    Chris Brewster subscribermember

    Ms. Rosas: I can't speak specifically to the issue to which you allude, but everything I have read about Ms. Spector is that she is a public relations person with no experience with this issue. My sense is that she was hired to paint over the problem. I think that the Mayor may now be forced to come to terms with the issue because his constituency is apparently up in arms. Until now, it was something to be ignored, which is why there is a problem. PR won't cut it anymore.

    mwkingsandiego subscriber

    So the rich white guys in the hotel industry are worried that the homeless might hurt their income? Aww, gee that's too bad - Santa awards one lump of coal each. Do these guys not hear the message they are sending? Maybe if they did something to HELP the homeless problem they might get back on the Nice List.

    Chris Brewster
    Chris Brewster subscribermember

    Obviously, this social problem was not going to be fixed in San Diego until it affected someone's pocketbook. That said, does it trouble anyone else that the person hired to solve the problem has no experience in anything of this nature and is a public relations professional? The problem here is not going to be solved by better public relations. 

    Joe Jones
    Joe Jones subscriber

    It's reaching a tipping point. The rule of thumb is two years of outrage and then civic action, witness the graffiti explosion here in the early 90s. In the meantime, pretend it's a tribute to Coronado's tent city of the early 1900s and step carefully.

    John Porter
    John Porter subscriber

    Now that there's money being lost, something creative will be done.   Perhaps free train fare to El Cajon, a wonderful spot for homeless folks.

    Bruce Higgins
    Bruce Higgins subscriber

    Enough talk.  This problem has been talked about for years, loads of hand wringing, "What to do?  What to do?"  We know what to do, successful strategies have been demonstrated in cities across our country.  We do not have to reinvent the wheel.  It takes money, the political will to move things forward without getting bogged down in endless regulations and paperwork, cooperation among the nonprofits, and the commitment city and county government. San Diego has shown that they can move quickly on projects that matter to the city.

    Right now we don't care about the homeless.  Lots of talk, no action.  When we care enough to take real action, the problem can be solved.  Until then, all of this is window dressing.

    Joe Jones
    Joe Jones subscriber

    @Bruce Higgins I care. Give me 10 cops, 6 dumpsters and 3 weeks, don't ask any questions, and presto! Problem solved.

    Steve Johnson
    Steve Johnson

    @Joe Jones A fellow tried that earlier this year.  I hope he stays in prison for a very long time.

    Pete DeMaster
    Pete DeMaster

    Santa Monica has a lot of hotels, and homeless too. The difference is that they don't allow tents.

    If you have to give them access to tents, Make an ordinance that only allows tents from 10pm to 6am. Then enforce it.

    This will provide a little extra motivation to disperse to other areas.

    Cory Briggs
    Cory Briggs subscribermember

    The restrooms at the convention center and at waterfront hotels are open to the public.  Those places are required to be open to the public as part of the "public access" requirements that apply on state tidelands.  The city, the port, and the hoteliers don't want the homeless to know this.

    Lori Saldana
    Lori Saldana subscribermember

    This suggests we are finally approaching the tipping point:  the hospitality/service/tourism industry in San Diego (that typically pays some of the lowest wages to it's employees, and has some of the highest seasonal turnover) is beginning to realize these low wages- coupled with a lack of affordable housing in downtown- is hurting its own long-term prospects.

    As noted- this is an industry the city relies on for many millions in annual revenues: "Hotel-tax hauls alone are the city’s third-largest source of revenue." 

    Perhaps the hoteliers and others downtown could help by paying workers a living wage and decent benefits- not only the food servers and desk staff, but people who clean rooms, change sheets, maintain grounds and pools, etc.  

    Clearly- No one prospers in the long run when low-wage workers live in poverty. 

    Mark Giffin
    Mark Giffin subscribermember

    @Lori Saldana 

    With all due respect Lori. Drawing a cause and effect between wages and downtown homelessness is a stretch.

    As you know the homeless population is a mixed group including mental illness, addiction to drugs or alcohol, bums, vagabonds, gypsies and of course those down on their luck. For the most part these are not employable people. (that is not to say they cannot perform tasks)

    They all need to be dealt with in different ways.

    Wages and benefits is a separate issue and only clouds the solutions to the problem at hand.

    Mark Giffin
    Mark Giffin subscribermember

    Until the city gets the intestinal fortitude to deal with this problem we can expect it to grow. Unfortunately San Diego and other California cities need help from the state which is unlikely to happen.

    Enabling is not a good strategy.

    B J
    B J subscriber

    How about the notoriously needy "downtown hoteliers" kick in the money to replace the pay by the week housing that their very redevelopment (enabled by many mayors over many years here) has displaced?  

    sdca goodlife
    sdca goodlife

    We need continued pressure on government to provide a solution - I hope hotelier's efforts will help.

    Would be great if the city could impose a no sitting - sleeping regulation like the one described in the linked article about Honolulu.  The homeless are destroying the quality of life downtown.

    Vagrancy and transience should not be accepted lifestyles. I understand the number of people with mental health and addiction issues, but when solutions are available and refused, lock them up!  The city should not have to provide you with an apartment in order to get you off the streets - it's extortion!  The new housing recently opened at the Hotel Churchill - how long will those people live there?  It sounds open-ended - not reasonable!  Set up a tent & cots like the temp shelters we had in East Village (how about in Otay Mesa?), and incarcerate people if they won't agree to move to shelters or programs of their own free will.

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    Replace the minimum wage with a basic income. Then there will be no more homeless and jobs will come back to the USA when employers can pay $1 per hour for labor like in China.

    Chris Brewster
    Chris Brewster subscribermember

    Mr. Hofmann: Where would you imagine a person making that wage could afford a place to live in San Diego?

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    @Chris Brewster Don't forget, they would also be getting a basic income which is enough to pay for their rent and other needs. If that plus what San Diego employers are offering still isn't enough to live within commuting distance, then employers will either have to (1) offer more to get people to mop their floors, or they will have to (2) mop their own floors, or (3) just live with dirty floors. Which do you think they will do?

    Chris Brewster
    Chris Brewster subscribermember

    Mr. Hofmann: Thanks. I guess I just didn't (maybe still don't) understand your original post. What is a "basic income?"

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    @Chris Brewster A basic income is social security that everyone gets unconditionally, even if they aren't retired.

    If everyone were getting social security, would employers still need to pay a minimum wage?

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    @Steve Johnson Does the minimum wage cause unemployment and prevent people from meaningfully contributing to society?

    With a basic income in place and people no longer worrying about where their next meal will come from or who will pay the rent and bills, do you think they will be more or less likely to go back to school, start a business, volunteer, or do other things that meaningfully contribute to society?

    Steve Johnson
    Steve Johnson

    @Derek Hofmann One may take from society in proportion to what one contributes to it.  Society has a real and imperative responsibility to find _all_ the ways an individual can usefully and meaningfully contribute.  The individual in turn has a responsibility to then work for everyone's benefit.  If one is unwilling to contribute, I am unwilling to contribute much to them.  They shouldn't die in the streets, but they should be given only a minimal "allowance" of goods and services and be treated like the dead weight they are.

    If one is unable to work but contributed in the past, that's taken into account.  If one "says" they're unable to work, that gets a whole lot of scrutiny, but if found to be accurate, again becomes society's responsibility to find some way they can still contribute while working around their disability.

    I appreciate JFK's sentiment that a person should ask first how they can help [society] rather than what they can get from [society].

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    @Steve Johnson

    Tenant: "But now I'm only making $1 per hour instead of $10.50!"

    Landlord: "Rent is $1000 a month."