By now, you’ve probably heard all about “Sprinklergate,” or the shocking revelation that the homeless in San Francisco who try to sleep in the doorways of St. Mary’s Cathedral may end up being doused at regular intervals by a sprinkler system that was probably not legal to begin with.
Of course, the timing of these startling revelations is suspicious, given that there appears to be an ongoing PR campaign against Archbishop Cordileone for daring to require Catholic school teachers to avoid promoting open heresy or living baldly wanton and lascivious lifestyles while employed (theoretically, anyway) to provide students with a Catholic education. Unfortunately for the PR guys, it didn’t take long before people figured out the system pre-dates the current archbishop and that he is, in fact, quite a leader in Christian care for the homeless.
Naturally, most Catholics (myself included) are not happy about this whole sprinkler system thing. The homeless ought to be helped. It is against their dignity to pour water on them to get them to leave. Most of us are quite willing to stop with those simple statements.
But how do we help the homeless? And in situations like this one, where the homeless were reportedly leaving feces, used needles, and other biohazards in the cathedral doorways, how do we properly balance our Christian mission to help the poor and the oppressed without creating worse situations than the ones we are trying to solve?
I once belonged to a parish where there was perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. The pastor knew quite well that homeless people would come in and sleep in some of the pews since the church was always open. And this was fine--yet it was not fine if a homeless person began acting abusive, pulling a weapon, assaulting or threatening to assault anybody (including another homeless person), committing vandalism etc. On those occasions the police would be called. The headlines might look just as bad: “Pastor calls police to remove homeless person from church...” Yet what else could he have done? He was perfectly ready to let the homeless, generally speaking, take shelter in the church building, but that did not translate to a right to each homeless person specifically to do whatever he or she wanted while there.
It’s easy to see that we as a nation are failing the homeless, speaking generally. As Christians there are things we can do that will actually help, and it looks as though Archbishop Cordileone is a true leader in that regard. I think all Christians who work to relieve the suffering of the poorest among us deserve great praise, and as much of our help as we can give (including our prayers).
Still, I think that sometimes the question of balance should be raised. Does helping the homeless mean getting used to bodily wastes and dirty needles in public places? Can’t we do better than that, not just for ourselves, but for them--especially for those among the homeless who suffer just as much when they are expected to sleep on surfaces covered with bodily wastes and dirty needles?
It’s a complex problem. It won’t be solved by pointing agenda-driven fingers of blame, either.