US Catholic Faith in Real Life

A Catholic parish's response to the homeless: Douse them with water so they'll go away

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St. Mary of the Assumption Cathedral in the Archdiocese of San Francisco is a popular spot for local people experiencing homelessness. The church has four tall, sheltered side doors that provide a safe place for people to sleep at night--or at least, they used to.

Local news station KCBS reports that the cathedral, in an effort to deter people experiencing homelessness from sleeping in the doorways at night, has installed overhead sprinklers that come on every 30 to 60 minutes, drenching the doorway with water. And no, these showers aren't the same as the ones Pope Francis installed for the homeless in St. Peter's Square. KCBS reports that a cathedral employee confirms the showers have one purpose: To prevent people from sleeping in the doorways.

An archdiocesan spokesman, when asked about the church's actions, rattled off the list of church agencies that help people in poverty, from Catholic Charities housing programs to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. "But there is only so much you can do," he said. That's true, and having people sleep in doorways is certainly not a perfect solution to the problem of homelessness. But how can the church consider dousing people with water while they sleep a pastoral response to human suffering?

Paula Lomazzi, a woman who experienced homelessness in California for seven years, wrote in the August 2013 issue of U.S. Catholic: "Catholic individuals, parishes, and organizations are well known for taking on projects that benefit homeless people, mostly by serving meals and providing shelter. This work should continue, of course, but we cannot ignore the immediate harm inflicted upon our homeless neighbors by not allowing them the legal right to survive while they wait for shelter and housing to become available."

It is hard to believe that a Catholic parish--the archdiocesan cathedral no less--would take such a callous approach to the homeless people who come to its doors for shelter. Can you imagine what Pope Francis would say about such actions?

It is also worth noting that the San Francisco cathedral is the home church to Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, who has been in the news lately for his efforts to institute morality clauses in the contracts of Catholic school teachers. The clauses are primarily centered around ensuring that employees at archdiocesan high schools do not violate the church's teachings on sexuality--contraception, same-sex marriage, and in vitro fertilization, for example. Perhaps the archdiocese needs a similar clause for parish employees when it comes to their treatment of the poor.

UPDATE: The San Francisco archdiocese has released a statement in response to the widespread media coverage of this issue. The statement is tucked away on the media adisory page of their website but can be found here. It seems to me that there are some inconsistencies between this version of where the sprinklers came from and what the parish and archdiocese told KCBS in the original news story, but you can read both accounts and decide for yourself.

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