San Francisco archdiocese apologizes for sprinkler system that doused homeless in doorways

The San Francisco archdiocese said watering devices installed at St. Mary of the Assumption Cathedral to discourage the homeless from sleeping in covered doorways were intended as a public safety measure in response to "needles, feces and other dangerous items ... regularly being left in these hidden doorways."

A media advisory issued Wednesday afternoon also said: "We have also now learned that the system in the first place required a permit and may violate San Francisco water-use laws, and the work to remove this system has already started, and will be completed by the end of the day."

The statement was a quick response to a local KCBS news story earlier in the day that said reporters watched the sprinkler system "soak homeless people, and their belongings."

"The shower ran for about 75 seconds, every 30 to 60 minutes while we were there, starting before sunset, simultaneously" in four doorways, KCBS reported.

It reported that no-trespassing signs were on-site, 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 news report was quickly and widely shared.

"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 archdiocesan media statement said.

The release also said the archdiocese "is, along with the Catholic St. Vincent de Paul Society, the largest supporter of services for the homeless in San Francisco. Every year, it helps many thousands of people through food, housing, shelter programs for people at risk including homeless mothers and families ... St. Mary's Cathedral is a huge part of that program, and does more than any other Catholic church.

"The Cathedral itself serves hundreds of homeless people giving them food and shelter, as an integral part of the San Francisco Interfaith Council's efforts in that regard, for example, opening its doors for shelter and food for five weeks over the holidays," it added.

The sprinkler system was installed about two years ago, according to the archdiocese, "after learning from city resources that this kind of system was being commonly used in the Financial District, as a safety, security and cleanliness measure ... The problem was particularly dangerous because students and elderly people regularly pass these locations on their way to school and mass every day."

"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," the advisory stated. "The purpose was to make the Cathedral grounds as well as the homeless people who happen to be on those grounds safer."

KCBS quoted "a neighbor who witnessed the drenching" as saying: "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, told KCBS: "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."

For further information on the situation, the archdiocesan alert referred media personnel to Larry Kamer, principal of the Kamer Consulting Group. The firm's website notes that Kamer "is a veteran public affairs strategist and an expert in the management of difficult, public-facing challenges that determine the future of reputations, brands, and careers."

[Dan Morris-Young is an NCR West Coast correspondent. His email address is]

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