At the Center

Author: Michelle Russell       

This summer, an article about a conference for physicians pulling out of its host city because attendees felt unsafe walking the streets of San Francisco — where open drug illness were on display among the
homeless — became the tipping point for our editorial team. We had talked about covering the issue of homelessness for several months before this, and wanted to frame that one organization’s decision within a larger picture. After all, we know firsthand that this isn’t a crisis confined to San Francisco, but something we’ve all experienced in New York City and Chicago — two cities the editorial team calls home — and in the many other urban centers we’ve visited.

What struck us was that these were doctors — professionals who regularly see people at the lowest and most vulnerable point in their lives — who felt uncomfortable. How were event organizers working in other professions looking at the problem?

We took a quick survey to gauge the impact homelessness was having on site selection. Wanting to approach this topic with sensitivity, I put it in the skillful hands of our deputy editor, Barbara Palmer, who collaborated on our cover story and CMP Series with contributing editor Ken Budd.

Something Barbara kept returning to while working on this story is that this is a “shared problem” in our industry — CVBs, event organizers, and convention centers feel the pain, economically and psychologically.

I spoke with International Association of Venue Managers (IAVM) CEO Brad Mayne about how his members are dealing with homelessness around their facilities, and he told me that central to this issue is the fact that most convention centers are publicly owned venues. “Most municipal laws state that you have to give access to everybody within the community because it’s been built and is owned by that municipal organization,” he said. “So that’s the biggest challenge that managers face.”

Since centers are built to serve both visiting groups and their communities, many of their managers are active in local organizations that benefit individuals needing assistance. He shared a range of initiatives centers have taken to care for the homeless in their communities.

It’s a complex dilemma, and our coverage is by no means exhaustive. What we hope to convey, however, is that as a society and an industry, we can’t afford to think of homelessness as an intractable problem — and that not only is our industry addressing the problem through CSR efforts, but conferences are a major avenue through which the brightest minds arrive at solutions.

During a session on homelessness at Urban Land Institute’s (ULI) Fall Meeting in Los Angeles last October, Molly Turner, an urban planner in San Francisco, turned to history for encouragement. After the Great Depression of the 1930s, large numbers of people were homeless, and the nation managed to take care of the problem, she said in a ULI blog post. “We got ourselves out of the Great Depression,” Turner said. “We should be able to do it today.”