San Francisco cathedral turning off sprinklers that douse the homeless

St. Mary’s Cathedral
St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco announced Wednesday it was removing sprinklers that reportedly doused the homeless.
(Jeff Chiu / Associated Press)

A San Francisco Catholic church announced it would remove a sprinkler system that was reportedly dousing homeless people as they slept near the building’s sheltered doorways.

The Archdiocese of San Francisco said Wednesday that the sprinklers outside St. Mary’s Cathedral would be turned off following a backlash after a KCBS report about the watering system.

There are several tall doors with sheltered alcoves that attract homeless people at night, KCBS reported. Though there are no signs warning people, the sprinkler system turns on several times during the night, the news station reported.

“Water pours from a hole in the ceiling, about 30 feet above, drenching the alcove and anyone in it,” KCBS reported.


The water runs for about 75 seconds in all four doorways, and KCBS reporters said they watched as the sprinklers soaked homeless people and their belongings.

“We’re going to be wet there all night, so hypothermia, cold, all that other stuff could set in,” a homeless man named Robert told KCBS. The sprinkler system is “keeping the church clean, but it could make people sick.”

The news station said there were “syringes, cigarette butts, soggy clothing and cardboard” in the area but no draining system, allowing the water to pool on steps and sidewalks. St. Mary’s Cathedral is the principal church for the archdiocese.

In its statement, the archdiocese said the sprinkler system in its back doorways was installed about two years ago after “other ideas were tried and failed.”


The archdiocese said the sprinklers were modeled after systems in the Financial District as a “safety, security and cleanliness measure” to “avoid the situation where needles, feces and other dangerous items were regularly being left in these hidden doorways.”

The archdiocese said the problems with homeless people sleeping in St. Mary’s doorways was “particularly dangerous” because students and elderly people pass the areas en route to school and mass daily.

According to the archdiocese, the homeless people who slept in the doorways were informed in advance about the sprinklers being installed.

“The idea was not to remove those persons, but to encourage them to relocate to other areas of the Cathedral, which are protected and safer,” according to the statement.

The church said it recently learned that the system required a permit and might violate San Francisco water-use laws, and that the sprinklers would be removed by the end of the day Wednesday.

“We are sorry that our intentions have been misunderstood and recognize that the method used was ill-conceived,” the statement said.

“It actually has had the opposite effect from what it was intended to do, and for this we are very sorry.”

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