Saint Mary’s Cathedral, the flagship church of the Archdiocese of San Francisco and home worship community of embattled Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, is under fire for installing a watering system that drenches homeless people to keep them from sleeping on the sanctuary steps.
According to San Francisco news station KCBS, the system was placed above four doors surrounding the cathedral that attract homeless people at night. They observed that, beginning just before sunset, water descended for about 75 seconds from a sprinkler above each doorway every 30 to 60 minutes, covering the alcoves below in water. KCBS reported seeing it douse homeless people and their belongings.
A homeless man named Robert told KCBS that being drenched in water can have dire consequences out on the streets.
“We’re going to be wet there all night, so hypothermia, cold, all that other stuff could set in. Keeping the church clean, but it could make people sick,” he said.
Here is a video of the watering system in action.
The Archdiocese released a statement Wednesday afternoon addressing the controversy, saying the water mechanism was installed two years ago and that “people who were regularly sleeping in those doorways were informed in advance that the sprinklers were being installed.” It’s unclear whether church officials intended to regularly inform other homeless people who slept there.
“We are sorry that our intentions have been misunderstood and recognize that the method used was ill-conceived,” the statement read. “It actually has had the opposite effect from what it was intended to do … and for this we are very sorry.”
The city of San Francisco has taken steps to provide for its homeless population over the past decade, but the numbers haven’t changed much since 2005. The city counted 6,436 homeless people in 2014, 1,977 of whom were “chronically homeless.” This includes 914 unaccompanied children and youths, and an estimated 2,200 public school students lack permanent homes in the city.
The church’s water system stands in stark contrast to words and actions of Pope Francis, who has been a stalwart defender of the poor since assuming the papacy in 2013. Reports abound of the the pontiff sneaking out of the Vatican at night to serve the homeless, and he has also instituted several reforms in the Vatican to care for the needy: he gave away sleeping bags to poor people on the streets to celebrate his birthday, offered the homeless free shaves and hair cuts, and recently announced plans to install showers in St. Peter’s Square to serve Rome’s less fortunate.
“To love God and neighbor is not something abstract, but profoundly concrete: It means seeing in every person and face of the Lord to be served, to serve him concretely. And you are, dear brothers and sisters, in the face of Jesus,” the Pope said in May 2013 while speaking to residents of Dona Di Maria, a homeless shelter in Rome.
The Archdiocese vowed to remove the system by the end of the day on Wednesday, and also noted that it may have been operating without a permit, which would violate San Francisco water-use laws. Catholic Charities of San Francisco, which runs two homeless shelters in the city, told ThinkProgress they support the Archdiocese’s decision to disconnect the sprinklers.
The revelation comes at a difficult time for San Francisco Archbishop Cordileone, who is already under fire from area Catholics for inserting a “morality clause” into the local parochial school staff handbook that would allow church officials to fire teachers who “visibly” violate certain Catholic teachings — such as being gay. Supporters of Cordileone rushed to his defense on Wednesday, pointing to his record of helping the homeless. But others, such as prominent Catholic journalist David Gibson, argued the Archbishop’s history does not in any way excuse the sprinkler system.
ThinkProgress reached out to the Cathedral and the Archdiocese for comment, but our calls were not returned.