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How the tourism industry works around Seattle’s homeless crisis

Billy Meyer, who said he has been homeless in both Portland, Ore., and Seattle in the past year, holds a cardboard sign asking for help near a pedestrian bridge leading to the ferry dock in downtown Seattle on Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2016. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
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While the homeless crisis might be top of mind for Seattleites, it isn’t a major deterrent to tourism.

Perhaps that’s because the homeless crisis is already on the minds of those in the tourism industry — an industry taking it into account when selling Seattle.

“It’s an issue our industry lives with, and everyone who lives and works here lives with,” said Tom Norwalk with Visit Seattle. “It’s an issue that is probably more prevalent here, and in many cities, that we have to deal with. We have to answer questions.”

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Norwalk told KIRO Radio’s Tom and Curley Show that the homeless crisis has not crippled the tourism industry in Seattle. But it is a factor to dance around. Each week, representatives like Norwalk host prospective business clients, such as people looking for convention or event space. That interaction aims to attract clients to the region for events and more — spending out-of-town money in Seattle. They may be international prospects or media representatives, or others seeking to bring business to town.

“We have to be able to explain the situation,” Norwalk said. “We have to be a little careful when we show them around the city – where we take them, what time of day it is, if it’s evening, if it’s the waterfront or Seattle Center. So we are very careful, but we don’t hide it. We talk about what we are trying to do as a city. And what we are doing with the mayor’s leadership on a problem that is not unique to Seattle.”

“It really is not an overwhelming negative in terms of us being able to book business,” he said. “It certainly does affect someone’s experience from time-to-time on the streets.”

Homeless crisis vs downtown hotel

One example of that experience was expressed by Michael Hirschler, who represents one of downtown Seattle’s most prominent hotels. He wrote multiple letters in 2016 to the Seattle City Council, mayor and police department seeking some relief after months of issues. His experience is that of guests shocked by the homeless crisis, or employees who have been assaulted by people on the street. There was a repeat issue with one man who smoked — what is believed to be — crack or meth near the front door of the hotel. The same man would often vomit in front of the building or expose himself to guests.

In October, Hirschler told MyNorthwest:

This very weekend, an employee taped, on their phone, an incident with a man who was completely naked, yelling and screaming crossing First Avenue at Union Street. It was Saturday afternoon, a bunch of people waiting to cross the street, probably tourists. And this man started swiping at someone standing on the corner.

Our people are constantly battling against this street scene.

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