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San Francisco Cathedral Uses Sprinklers to Repel Homeless

March 18, 2015 by Brett Wilkins in Religion, Rich & Poor with 0 Comments
St. Mary's Cathedral, San Francisco. (John Zacherle)

St. Mary’s Cathedral, San Francisco. (John Zacherle)

San Francisco’s main Roman Catholic cathedral has installed a ‘watering system’ for homeless people seeking refuge in its doorway—not to quench their thirst, but rather to drench them as they sleep in a controversial effort to repel them.

CBS San Francisco reports St. Mary’s Cathedral, the principal church of the Archdiocese of San Francisco, installed the sprinkler system two years ago in a bid to repel the many homeless people who gather there to sleep in sheltered alcoves under four tall doors at the building’s entrance.

Although there is a ‘No Trespassing’ sign, many homeless said they were not warned about what would happen to them if they chose to bed down for the night there. Water showers down about 30 feet (9 meters) from a hole in the ceiling for more than a minute, once or twice an hour. The alcove, and anyone and anything in it, are soaked.

Some people bring water-resistant clothing, plastic bags or umbrellas in an attempt to avoid getting showered while they sleep. Their best efforts always seem to prove inadequate.

“We’re going to be wet there all night, so hypothermia, cold, all that other stuff could set in,” a homeless man named Robert told CBS San Francisco. “It could make people sick.”

“It’s unbelievable,” Joshua Pittman, another homeless man, told NBC Bay Area. “Because a church welcomes all with open arms. Because it’s funded through God.”

There is no drainage system, so the water, along with syringes, cigarette butts, wet clothing and cardboard, all get washed into pools that form on the sidewalk and steps of the church.

“It’s very shocking, and very inhumane. There’s not really another way to describe it,” Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homeless, told CBS San Francisco. “Certainly not formed on the basis of Catholic teachings.” The Coalition called the practice of drenching homeless people “cruel” and “one of the meaner things” it has heard.

The Archdiocese of San Francisco issued a statement in which it pointed to the work it does to help the homeless.

“Catholic organizations in San Francisco serve thousands of homeless people every year, providing shelter, food, and critical services,” a Wednesday morning statement issued by the archdiocese read. “That is the true picture of compassionate Catholic care.”

Archdiocese spokesman Larry Kramer said the church got the idea for the sprinklers after learning businesses in the city’s Financial District had successfully installed them to keep away homeless people. The system was set up at St. Mary’s as a “safety, security and cleanliness measure to avoid the situation where needles, feces and other dangerous items were regularly being left in these hidden doorways.”

San Francisco Bishop William Justice told NBC Bay Area the “idea was not to remove those persons, but to encourage them to relocate to other areas of the Cathedral, which are protected and safer.”

UPDATE: NBC Bay Area reports Bishop Justice promised to remove the sprinklers during a Wednesday afternoon press conference. The bishop noted the cathedral attracts “hundreds of homeless people” and that it strives to help the homeless “more than any other Catholic church.”

“We are sorry that our intentions have been misunderstood and recognize that the method used was ill-conceived,” a church statement read. “It actually has had the opposite effect from what it was intended to do, and for this we are sorry.”

The church conceded that it lacked the required permit to operate such a sprinkler system, which “may violate San Francisco water-use laws.”

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