SAN FRANCISCO (KCBS) — 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.
“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.
The water doesn’t really clean the area. There are syringes, cigarette butts, soggy clothing and cardboard. There is no drainage system. The water pools on the steps and sidewalks.
A 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.”
A cathedral staff member confirmed to KCBS the system was installed, perhaps a year ago, to deter the homeless from sleeping there.
Chris Lyford, a spokesman for the Archdiocese, said cathedral staff tries hard to help these people.
“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.”
Some of the homeless bring waterproof gear, even an umbrella, to try to stay dry. Frustrated cathedral employees tell us they don’t have the staff to police the doorways, which are used by churchgoers during services.
Lyford, who says he didn’t know about the water system until we showed it to him, admits it doesn’t seem to be an effective deterrent.
Then, suggests this church neighbor, turn it off. “I would hope that they would stop doing this, both for environmental reasons and for common decency.”
KCBS has also learned from a review of city permit records that the system was installed illegally, and may violate water use regulations.
The Archdiocese issued a new statement Wednesday morning about the story, saying the church will address the situation at the Cathedral immediately and will have further comment later in the day.
The statement goes on to say, “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.”