San Fran archdiocese apologizes for ‘inhumane’ sprinklers that douse homeless
St. Mary’s Cathedral, the seat of the Archdiocese of San Francisco, installed the sprinkler system about two years ago, after learning “from city resources” that similar systems are “commonly used” in the Financial District, the archdiocese said in a statement.
“This sprinkler system in alcoves near our back doorways was installed... 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,” the church said.
“The problem was particularly dangerous because students and elderly people regularly pass these locations on their way to school and mass every day.”
The sprinklers are located in a hole in the ceiling about 30 feet above the steps. The water rains down simultaneously from all four doorways for about 75 seconds, every 30 to 60 minutes, beginning before sunset and recurring throughout the night, KCBS reported.
— Sam Singer (@samsinger) March 18, 2015
The church said that they informed those homeless people who regularly sleep in the cathedral’s doorways about the sprinklers, hoping to relocate them to other areas of the building that are “protected and safer.”
The archdiocese noted that it is “the largest supporter of services for the homeless in San Francisco,” and that St. Mary’s Cathedral “does more than any other Catholic church.”
But the homeless people who frequent the building say it isn’t as welcoming to them as the archdiocese says.
“They actually have signs in there that say, ‘No Trespassing'," a homeless man named Robert told KCBS.
There are no signs that warn the homeless about the sprinklers, and the water is prone to drenching them and their belongings.
“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,” Robert said.
But the water doesn’t really clean the area, according to KCBS. There are syringes, cigarette butts, soggy clothing and cardboard. There is no drainage system. Water pools accumulate on the steps and sidewalks.
“Hosing us down like that was totally wrong, telling us we were not blessed, that we were the devil’s child,” Steve Johnson, 54, who bunked down in nearby Jefferson Square after being chased out by the sprinklers, told the San Francisco Chronicle. “This is not caring from the church.”
Bishop of St. Mary's Cathedral admits he knew water was soaking homeless at night, but did nothing to stop it. "I was preoccupied."
— Doug Sovern (@SovernNation) March 18, 2015
Neighbors of the building and advocates for the homeless called the system shocking and inhumane.
One neighbor who witnessed the drenching told KCBS, “I was just shocked, one because it’s inhumane to treat people that way. The second thing is that we are in this terrible drought.”
Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homeless said, “It’s 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 apologized for the sprinkler system on Wednesday, and didn’t turn the spouts on that night.
“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,” the church said.
— ✉ James Servino (@jserves) March 18, 2015
“The problem is persistent,” church spokesman Larry Kamer told the Chronicle. “The first priority today was to turn the sprinklers off. But now we’ll have to figure out what to do next.”
Paul Boden, organizing director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project, which advocates for homeless people, suggested to the Chronicle that the church hire homeless people to clean the mess left by those who spend the night in St. Mary’s doorways.
The system itself may be illegal as well, the archdiocese said, because it required a permit ‒ which the church did not apply for or receive ‒ and because it may violate the city’s water use laws. The San Francisco Department of Building Inspection issued a notice of violation for “the un-permitted downspout” after the department’s chief plumbing inspector visited the building on Tuesday, department spokeswoman Lily Madjus told the Washington Post in an email.
The archdiocese has filed a permit to remove the system, which it must do within 15 days, Madjus said. The cathedral has already started to remove the sprinklers, the archdiocese said.
The city’s Roman Catholic churches have been under fire of late for an attempt to force their schoolteachers to agree to guidelines rejecting homosexual relations, the use of contraception and other “gravely evil” behavior, the Chronicle reported.