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San Francisco cathedral will stop dousing sleeping homeless people with water

Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Assumption, the principal church of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of San Francisco. (Roi Brooks/iStock)

In order to prevent homeless people from sleeping outside of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, the Archdiocese of San Francisco installed a system that dumps water onto the ground near its sheltered doorways, where people tend to rest at night.

On Wednesday, after facing substantial backlash for the deterrent, the archdiocese announced that the system will be removed “by the end of the day.”

In the statement, the archdiocese said it initially decided to install the controversial system “after learning from city resources” that similar deterrents were “commonly used in the Financial District” in San Francisco to “avoid the situation where needles, feces and other dangerous items were regularly being left in these hidden doorways.”

“The Archdiocese of San Francisco is, along with the Catholic St. Vincent de Paul Society, the largest supporter of services for the homeless in San Francisco,” the statement adds.

KCBS in San Francisco first reported on the water system and witnessed it at work:

“They actually have signs in there that say, ‘No Trespassing,’” said a homeless man named Robert.
But there are no signs warning the homeless about what happens in these doorways, at various times, all through the night. Water pours from a hole in the ceiling, about 30 feet above, drenching the alcove and anyone in it.
The shower ran for about 75 seconds, every 30 to 60 minutes while we were there, starting before sunset, simultaneously in all four doorways. KCBS witnessed it soak homeless people, and their belongings.

Archdiocese spokesman Chris Lyford told KCBS that he learned about the drenching deterrent from the station’s reporter, who showed him the system in action for the first time.

It looks like the system may be in violation of the San Francisco Department of Building Inspection. The department issued a notice of violation for “the unpermitted downspout,” department spokeswoman Lily Madjus told The Post in an email.  The department’s chief plumbing inspector visited the site on Tuesday, following a complaint. The archdiocese has filed a permit to remove the system, Madjus added. They have 15 days to do so.

The archdiocese said that they have already started to remove the system from the cathedral.

After the system was installed, the homeless people who slept at the church started using umbrellas and other water-repelling gear in an attempt to stay dry. Still, one homeless man told KCBS that he was worried “it could make people sick.”

The archdiocese says that “the people who were regularly sleeping in those doorways were informed in advance that the sprinklers were being installed,” adding, “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.”

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

Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homeless, told KCBS that the system was “very shocking, and very inhumane. There’s not really another way to describe it. Certainly not formed on the basis of Catholic teachings.”

The archdiocese defended the reasoning behind using water to keep the cathedral’s doorways clear. “We do the best we can … supporting the dignity of each person,” Lyford told KCBS. “But there is only so much you can do.”

The spokesman noted that the archdiocese refers the homeless “mostly to Catholic Charities, for example for housing, to Saint Anthony’s soup kitchen for food, if they want food on that day. Saint Vincent de Paul if they need clothes.” Despite those services, many people still sleep at the cathedral, Lyford said, including quite a few with substance abuse problems.

But not everyone agrees with the need for a deterrent like the one at the cathedral. “I was just shocked, one because it’s inhumane to treat people that way,” one neighbor said to KCBS. “The second thing is that we are in this terrible drought.” KCBS has raised the question of whether the water system violates local water ordinances.

Online reactions to the water deterrent (including those from many Catholics) were incredulous.

As Rocco Palmo notes, San Francisco itself is named after Saint Francis of Assisi, who was known for his spiritual pursuit of poverty. Pope Francis took the same saint’s name when he became Pope. In explaining his choice, Francis said, “How I would like a church that is poor and that is for the poor.” 

[First showers, now sleeping bags: Pope Francis’ birthday gift to the homeless]

Quite a few people have noted the seeming contrast to the Vatican’s recent approach to the homeless who sleep on their ground. In just the past few months, led by the efforts of chief alms-giver Monsignor Konrad Krajewski, the Vatican has distributed sleeping bags to the homeless in honor of Pope Francis’s birthday, started offering free weekly haircuts and opened up showers in a space off St. Peter’s Square for anyone who needs them. The showers are open most days of the week.

Here is the full statement from the archdiocese:

[This post has been updated]

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