As president of S.F. Travel, the city’s visitors bureau, Joe D’Alessandro’s job is to promote San Francisco. You’d think he’d be hyping the city’s gorgeous vistas, top-notch restaurants and glorious museums.
Instead, he’s getting honest.
Sure, San Francisco has great facets worthy of postcards and travel books, but it also has a worsening underbelly that D’Alessandro says he can no longer gloss over.
People injecting themselves with drugs in broad daylight, their dirty needles and other garbage strewn on the sidewalks. Tent camps. Human feces. The threatening behavior of some people who appear either mentally ill or high. Petty theft.
“The streets are filthy. There’s trash everywhere. It’s disgusting,” D’Alessandro said, adding he’s traveled the world, and San Francisco stands out for the wrong reasons. “I’ve never seen any other city like this — the homelessness, dirty streets, drug use on the streets, smash-and-grabs.
“How can it be?” he continued. “How can it have gotten to this point?”
Remember, this is the man whose job is to glorify San Francisco, which tells you something about how far the city has sunk.
“We can’t be quiet anymore,” D’Alessandro said. “We’ve got such a glorious history, such a beautiful setting, and the fact is, we’re letting it all slip away into this quality of life now that is not good for anybody. We’ve become complacent, and I think we’ve taken this as a kind of new normal, and it’s not. It’s wrong, and we have to do something about it.”
He said so many visitors are sending complaints to him about their experiences in San Francisco, he’s got to speak up. He joins a growing chorus of people whose jobs make them dubious about telling a columnist their real opinions of San Francisco, but who say they have to because working behind the scenes isn’t moving the needle. Well, so to speak.
In January, I told you about hotel managers and owners speaking out. Kevin Carroll, executive director of the Hotel Council, which represents 110 hotels, said at the time, “People say, ‘I love your city, I love your restaurants, but I’ll never come back.’”
In February, I told you that the Union Square Business Improvement District, which assesses extra property taxes to pay for services in the shopping mecca, was having to train retail workers on what to do when a severely mentally ill or drug-addicted person wreaks havoc in their store.
“We’re desperate enough to expose ourselves to look for solutions,” said Karin Flood, executive director of the business improvement district.
Add S.F. Travel to the list. D’Alessandro and Cassandra Costello, the vice president of public policy, said they’re hearing increasing complaints from business organizations that pay a lot of money to hold events here.
For the first time, the group has hired its own safety consultant: Michael Deely, a retired San Francisco police captain. He’s charged with coming up with strategies to keep convention-goers safe around Moscone Center and downtown. He’ll also be directing 10B police officers — uniformed, off-duty officers who are paid privately — hired by S.F. Travel during big conventions.
“We want to create a safe and secure environment between the hotels and Moscone Center itself,” Deely said. “We don’t want to wait to find out about it in surveys afterwards.”
To preemptively answer some complaints I know this column will bring: No, tourists and businesspeople don’t matter more than homeless people, those addicted to drugs and others in desperate need of help. But their outsider’s view can jolt us into not merely rushing past those who are down on their luck and to realizing that the status quo is not compassionate or effective.
Also, paying for shelters and supportive housing, teams to coax the homeless inside, and drug, alcohol and mental health services costs a lot of money. And who brings in the biggest pot? Yep, the tourists and conventioneers. They spend $9 billion in San Francisco every year, $725 million of which goes to City Hall in the form of taxes.
Third, too many San Franciscans conflate homelessness and street crime, which is inaccurate and unhelpful. It isn’t and shouldn’t be a crime to be homeless. These people need our help. But that doesn’t mean street crime — such as bicycle chop shops, theft, drug dealing and harassing pedestrians — is OK.
Photo: Carlos Avila Gonzalez / The Chronicle
Chris Jones, who has lived on the streets for five years, sets up a cardboard barrier in the doorway of Williams-Sonoma near Union Square.
The vast majority of those business groups struggling with whether to continue hosting events in San Francisco won’t speak publicly because they don’t want potential attendees to be scared off.
But the Game Developers Conference, which drew 28,000 international gaming professionals to Moscone Center last month, found itself in the public eye after some tweets from frustrated conference-goers went viral.
An Australian gamer tweeted that San Francisco “is a dangerous city” and the conference should no longer be hosted here. He cited a mugging, credit card theft and the general feeling of being unsafe. Others chimed in with stories of car break-ins, a knife fight and assaults. One attendee tweeted that all the developers he’d talked to were “still shell shocked after this year.”
The conference is scheduled to take place again at Moscone in March, but a spokesperson told me, “We’re evaluating feedback from GDC attendees and our post-show survey, and are keen to hear about everyone’s experiences as we plan for the future.”
It’s not just young international techies who feel unsure about San Francisco. Ron Olejko, senior director of meeting services for the American College of Rheumatology, plans conventions for 16,000 people and last brought the event to the city in 2015.
One of his big conferences alone is worth 53,000 hotel nights, he pointed out, not to mention all the meals and other items participants spend money on. But he said conference attendees last time reported feeling unsafe — being followed and screamed at, and having to step around needles and feces. One colleague walking with Olejko was spit on.
“San Francisco is one of the great cities in the world, and it’s like you’re in the Third World,” he said, adding that for now, San Francisco is still in his rotation, but more for the image than the reality.
“The idea of San Francisco is iconic to most people,” he said. “At some point, I think there will be a tipping point, and people will reconsider.”
Olejko was a co-signer of a letter to the late Mayor Ed Lee in 2015, joining a number of other associations that hold events here, including the American Chemical Society, the California Dental Association and the National Automobile Dealers Association.
The letter complained of dirty streets, threatening street behavior and public defecation and said that if the situation didn’t improve, “your city will see that citywide conventions will not rebook San Francisco and will choose other cleaner and safer West Coast destinations.”
That letter was written 2½ years ago, and the misery on our streets has gotten worse. Here’s hoping there’s only room for improvement.