Unintended Consequences: Leaving a Wake of High Living Costs in Tourist Destinations – By Julia Chambers
In recent years, Americans have become increasingly interested in the idea of responsible tourism. Many seek the most authentic and local experiences possible, but they do not necessarily consider how their presence may alter the place or the lives of the people who live there. The priority of responsible tourism is to minimize that impact. Most discussions about sustainable tourism, ecotourism, etc. are generally focused on places like Costa Rica, Kenya, or Thailand, but how are the trips that we take, our spring break trips and honeymoons, impacting the places we visit domestically?
It is no coincidence that we see the densest homeless populations in locations that are also desirable tourist destinations. While they arrive for different reasons, a decent climate is highly sought after and can reduce the burden of everyday life and survival. Tourists travel to warm places like Fort Lauderdale, San Diego and Honolulu to decompress and escape the cold winters. People experiencing homelessness also gravitate to these destinations for a bit of added security, because even if they cannot find any rental assistance or a place in a shelter, they can live more comfortably outside without the daily threat of hypothermia/hyperthermia that they might face in more dramatic climates. Visible homelessness is certainly higher in these locations.
Not all homeless individuals in these climates have travelled to arrive there. The truth is that a quality tourism industry is a powerful economic tool, which unfortunately does not always benefit the whole community. Many individuals experiencing homelessness in these sites have lived there for long periods of time and eventually could not keep up with the constantly-increasing, astronomical cost of living. Home prices and services are too expensive for the average citizen and access to basic necessities, like low-cost grocery stores, is often scarce. Jobs can be limited and many times reserved for skilled outside labor. The hospitality industry, for example, is very competitive; local talent is rarely developed and hardly ever brought into management roles. Orlando serves as an outstanding example of how a single tourist destination, like Disney world, can inflate the cost of living so high that the minimum wage workers keeping the destination running can hardly afford to live within a reasonable distance of the site. In an isolated state like Hawaii, there is fierce competition over job opportunities, even minimum wage work. Without massive job development on the part of the tourism industry, locals will be left with no work and nowhere else to go to look for employment. Even those with jobs are constantly at risk of falling into homelessness, as wages are inadequate to comfortably support a family.
If one were to fall into a state of homelessness, he or she could expect an exceptionally challenging future. Navigating shelter systems, housing authorities, and other service agencies is exhausting and difficult, but in high-tourism zones, those are just a few of the struggles that homeless individuals will face. In states like Florida, California and Hawaii, localities have enacted legislation that effectively criminalizes homelessness, in hopes of pushing the problem out of sight. Governments in these states have even purchased one-way bus or plane tickets for people experiencing homelessness in order to get them out of their jurisdictions. When the economy is so reliant on tourism dollars, it is natural for a local government or tourism board to take complaints seriously. Often times, tourists complain that they feel unsafe or uncomfortable around homeless individuals. The reputation of a destination can be tarnished so quickly, it is almost remarkable to see how agile governments can be in responding to economic threats. They generally first introduce bans to keep people from sleeping in the most visited parts of town. Sometimes they will open up a resource center far from the center of town to try to lure homeless people away from the hot spots.
Sadly, more often they will enact numerous so-called “quality of life” laws that they can use to collect and jail homeless individuals in periodic sweeps. Some examples of laws that are in place are bans on sitting/laying on public sidewalks, bans on begging or panhandling, prohibition of the use of blankets, chairs, tents, etc. in public places, and bans on sharing food with homeless people in public parks. Not only do these laws neglect the immediate needs of people experiencing homelessness, they actually punish them for their current circumstances. They are inherently flawed and will fail to assist in any effort to end homelessness in this country.
Honolulu’s current war on the homeless is perhaps the most concerning, where nightly sweeps and increasing numbers of anti-homeless ordinances are forcing homeless individuals to constantly relocate, but this is taking place all over the country, and not only in tourist destinations. We need to stand together and shout that it is not acceptable for our neighbors to be targeted and jailed simply for being poor.