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San Francisco Catholic cathedral’s method of deterring homeless brought to light

San Francisco Catholic cathedral’s method of deterring homeless brought to light

KCBS in San Francisco reports:

KCBS has learned that Saint Mary’s Cathedral, the principal church of the Archdiocese of San Francisco, has installed a watering system to keep the homeless from sleeping in the cathedral’s doorways.

The cathedral, at Geary and Gough, is the home church of the Archbishop. There are four tall side doors, with sheltered alcoves, that attract homeless people at night.

“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.

That story was posted early this morning. Just after noon, the ABC news affiliate ran its own story:

Does the premier Catholic church in San Francisco have a confession to make? The homeless trying to find refuge at St. Mary’s Cathedral claim the church is using water not to cleanse them, but to get rid of them. The Archdiocese of San Francisco is now looking into accusations that well-timed sprinklers are preventing the homeless from taking shelter at the landmark church.

After a request for information from the cathedral,

The Archdiocese of San Francisco will not tell ABC7 News what the sprinklers are for. But a spokesperson sent a statement that reads:

“Catholic organizations in San Francisco serve thousands of homeless people every year, providing shelter, food, and critical services. That is the true picture of compassionate Catholic care. The Archdiocese of San Francisco is aware of the situation at St. Mary’s Cathedral and will address it immediately.”

St. Mary’s, completed in 1970, is the “center of Archbishop Cordileone’s ministry in the Archdiocese of San Francisco,” according to the archdiocese website.

The church installed the system about a year ago to deal with trash and syringes that accumulate, though KCBS reports there is no drainage and the water pools.

Archdiocese spokesman Chris Lyford told KCBS he did not know about the water deterrent until they brought it to his attention.

“We refer them, mostly to Catholic Charities, for example for housing,” Lyford said. “To Saint Anthony’s soup kitchen for food, if they want food on that day. Saint Vincent de Paul if they need clothes.”

But he says they keep coming back, and most seem to have serious substance abuse issues.

“We do the best we can, and supporting the dignity of each person. But there is only so much you can do.”

By 2:03 p.m., the San Francisco Chronicle, and by 5:01 p.m., the Washington Post, reported that the sprinkler systems would be disappearing. The Chronicle:

San Francisco’s Roman Catholic Archdiocese moved Wednesday to try to tamp down its latest flap when it said it would remove sprinklers that have been spraying water on homeless people sleeping in the doorways of St. Mary’s Cathedral.

The sprinklers have been regularly dousing people camping in the doorways overnight for about two years. But when a report on KCBS radio on Wednesday quoted homeless advocates complaining about the system, the archdiocese was besieged by media requests for an explanation.

The Post:

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.”

Posted by Cara Ellen Modisett



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Adam Wood

I think it was just part of the general “washing machine agitator” design theme of the building as a whole.

Harry M. Merryman

Indeed. The “Bishop’s Bendix” as we used to call it!

Jean Lall

Adam, you have totally nailed it.

Richard Edward Helmer

This is embarrassing for all of us leading “church” in the Bay Area, whether we are Roman Catholics or not.

Luke Wetzel


This sort of thing is par for the course for homeless men and women. Like the Son of Man they have no place to lay their heads.

I get a little tired of reading all the pieces on this blog that are unflattering to Roman Catholics. It feels a little self-congratulatory.

Whit Johnstone

I agree- theres a distinct aura of “I give thanks that I am not like these RCs” tone to this peace. Having worked in a large urban church with an active homeless outreach, I can say that while what the RC cathedral did was wrong, I can understand why they did it.

Geoff McLarney

I too find some of the Episcopalian triumphalism you run into distasteful, but the archdiocese really stepped into it with this one.

Rev. Don Hands, Ph.D

What does Grace Cathedral do?

JC Fisher

This being California, I hope AT LEAST not waste the water!!! O_o

Once Bishop Cordileone decided not to See Christ in his LGBT brothers and sisters, I imagine the descent was slippery from there…

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