Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
So much for "advancing human dignity."
It was just yesterday that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops published a letter of support for the National Housing Trust Fund, the finally funded federal grant program meant to increase housing for extremely low‐income families, including homeless ones. The USCCB writes: "The Catholic way is to recognize the essential role and the complementary responsibilities of families, communities, the market, and government to work together to overcome poverty and advance human dignity.”
It seems that one Catholic church missed that memo. Saint Mary’s Cathedral, the home church of the Archdiocese of San Francisco, has been deterring homeless people from sleeping in its doorways by drenching them with water, as KCBS reported Wednesday morning.
The tall, alcoved doorways of St. Mary's attract homeless people looking for shelter at dark. The spraying system pours water from a hole in the ceiling into the alcoves periodically throughout the night. It installed about a year ago, according to a cathedral staff member.
“We’re going to be wet there all night, so hypothermia, cold, all that other stuff could set in," Robert, a homeless person, told KCBS.
Sadly, a cold, wet blast is not an unfamiliar feeling to many of San Francisco's neediest. The city's Department of Public Works was recently accused of intentionally hosing down homeless people around the Tenderloin, as part of a street-cleaning program meant to encourage tech workers into the spruced-up neighborhood. The DPW has denied aiming hoses at homeless people, but its employees have been caught on video doing just that in the past. (Catastrophic drought also be damned.)
But it is a particularly harsh blow to the homeless and their advocates when a religious institution like St. Mary's stoops so low.
“It’s very shocking, and very inhumane," Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homeless, told KCBS. "There’s not really another way to describe it. Certainly not formed on the basis of Catholic teachings.”
In San Francisco, not all churches treat the homeless with such questionable ethics. St. Boniface, less than a mile away from St. Mary's, invites folks to sleep on church pews during the day while homeless shelters are closed.
“We do the best we can, and supporting the dignity of each person," Chris Lyford, a spokesman for the San Francisco Archdiocese, told KCBS. "But there is only so much you can do.”