Catholic Church in San Francisco Was Pouring Cold Water on the Homeless

St. Mary’s Catholic Church in San Francisco had an odd way of making sure homeless people didn’t sleep in front of its doors—it had a timed sprinkler system that dumped cold water in its doorways:

. . . The principal church of the San Francisco Roman Catholic Archdiocese used the watering system to keep the homeless from sleeping in the cathedral doorways. The archdiocese acknowledged Wednesday it had been using the system for the past two years.

But the system also drenches some homeless people and violates city building and safety codes.

After inspecting the cathedral, the San Francisco Department of Building Inspection filed a notice of violation against the archdiocese and the cathedral, giving them 15 days to remove the system. In response, the archdiocese has taken out a plumbing permit to remove the entire watering system, which was observed to run for about 75 seconds every 30 to 60 minutes.

After a recent report and a public outcry, St. Mary’s decided to dismantle the system. But the whole story raises questions as to how the church is supposed to minister to the homeless, and how cities are supposed to handle homelessness.

Of course, huge numbers of people have criticized St. Mary’s for being heartless and inconsiderate and lame. Though I agree with that sentiment, the same vociferous critics of St. Mary’s probably lock their car doors as a reflex when they see homeless people, never give money to pan-handlers (“They’ll probably just use it on booze or drugs”), and think the civil government needs to do more to “clean up the city”—as if homeless people were feral cats or garbage.

The Catholic church in San Francisco does a lot for homeless people, as they have pointed out: they have shelters, food and clothing drives, and other rehabilitation programs and support groups. I don’t like that they were also dumping cold water in their doorways to keep the homeless away. But what are they supposed to do?

Homeless people camping in your doorways is more than just unsightly. And the problem is not people who just need a safe place to hang out for a night or two. The problem is with chronic homelessness. How do you deal with homeless people who refuse to be helped out of homelessness? People whose drug addictions, sexual activity, drunkenness, and occasional violence aren’t terribly conducive to a family-friendly church environment.

Part of the problem is that people think it is an institution’s job to fix this problem—either the civil government or the Church (with a capital “C,” of course). But institutions cannot help the homeless. They either enable homelessness or move it to the outskirts of town. The only real solution to homelessness, and all its attending ills, is a personal solution—life on life.

So, even as you pass judgment on St. Mary’s, consider what part you could play in ending homelessness. Even if it is in the life of just one person, how can your charity, in both senses, transform someone’s life? Don’t leave it to the government. Don’t leave it to some institutional idea of the church. We are the solution, each one of us.