SAN FRANCISCO – The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of San Francisco on Wednesday dismantled a sprinkler system it had installed at the city's cathedral during one of the worst droughts in California history to soak the alcoves and prevent homeless people from sleeping there.
The archdiocese took down the sprinklers after a barrage of criticism because the system installed at St. Mary's Cathedral was drenching homeless people at night.
KCBS Radio first reported undeterred homeless people were using umbrellas and waterproof gear, but they were still getting soaked as they slept in the doorways. The sprinklers ran for about 75 seconds, about every half hour, starting before sunset in all four doorways, soaking homeless people and their belongings, a KCBS reporter who saw the sprinklers at work reported.
The archdiocese, which supports and helps the homeless, apologized and said its intentions were misunderstood. It said the purpose was redirect homeless people to safer areas on the cathedral grounds.
"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," said Auxiliary Bishop William Justice, rector of the cathedral.
The system had been dismantled as of Wednesday afternoon, said Larry Kamer, a spokesman for the archdiocese. No homeless people were using the cathedral's alcoves until recently, he said.
The sprinkler system was installed two years ago, after the archdiocese learned that kind of system was being commonly used in the Financial District as a safety and cleanliness measure. Feces, needles and other dangerous items were regularly found in the doorways, Justice said.
"The problem was particularly dangerous because students and elderly people regularly pass these locations on their way to school and Mass every day," Justice said.
Homeless advocates welcomed the archdiocese's decision to remove the sprinklers, but they said they weren't surprised water was being used to get homeless people to move away from the area.
"It's so indicative of how dehumanizing we've become about homeless people," said Paul Boden, organizing director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project, which advocates for homeless people. "If you are going to hose somebody down, they are probably going to move. Water is a very effective tool to get someone to move, and it's become a tool in addressing homeless in America today. It's pretty sad."
The archdiocese has also been criticized in recent months for wanting to add morality clauses to the faculty handbook used by teachers at four of its high schools that outline the church's teaching that sex outside of marriage, homosexual relations, abortion, masturbation and the viewing of pornography are "gravely evil."
Justice highlighted Wednesday that the archdiocese of San Francisco is one of the largest supporters 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, and in countless other ways," he said.