Would Jesus have turned the sprinklers on homeless people to keep them away from a House of God? Maybe not.
But Saint Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco did and got a lot of bad publicity for it. So, on Wednesday, the city's premier Catholic church dismantled the system that activated for 75 seconds every 30-60 minutes after sunset, drenching the church alcoves—and those huddled in them with umbrellas and plastic gear.
“We are sorry that our intentions have been misunderstood and recognize that the method used was ill-conceived,” Auxiliary Bishop William Justice, rector of the cathedral, said in a statement. “It actually has had the opposite effect from what it was intended to do, and for this we are very sorry.”
Church spokesman Larry Kamer said the system, which is just water pouring from a hole above the alcove, was supposed to act as a deterrent, with the assumption being that no one was so desperate for safe shelter that they would put up with being regularly doused.
Now, the largest supporter of homeless services in San Francisco knows there are some people who are that desperate. “The trouble was that you have people who wanted to be there even if the sprinklers were on,” Kamer told the San Francisco Chronicle. “So it didn’t really work as it was intended.”
The church has a legitimate problem. Homeless people sleep in the doorways and don’t usually keep it very tidy. There were complaints of clothing, bedding, feces, crack pipes, needles, and other detritus left behind, but the sprinkler system only seemed to add a soggy quality to the mess.
The church installed the system two years ago and cited its use by businesses in the financial district as a justification. Leaving aside intentions and the use of bankers as role models for treating the poor, the callousness of not recognizing the harm done caused more than a little head scratching.
“It reminds me of how people treat dogs if they’re in heat, spraying them with hoses,” homeless advocate Paul Boden told the Chronicle. “It’s just symbolic of how dehumanizing we’ve become as a society about homeless people.”
CBS San Francisco broke the story Wednesday morning and by afternoon the PR fallout was apparent. The system was disabled within hours, but not quick enough to avoid scrutiny by the city.
The San Francisco Department of Building Inspection issued the church a violation for installing the system without a permit, according to the Washington Post.