ROME – Pope Francis’s favorite of the so-called “new movements” has issued an appeal for hotels and other buildings in Rome empty due to a lack of tourists amid the coronavirus pandemic to take in homeless who are at risk in the cold winter temperatures.

Homelessness during the winter is always a problem, but this year it has become more acute with the coronavirus pandemic. Not only has there been an increase in the number of people living on the streets, but those who do are often cut off from help given Italy’s national 10p.m. curfew, meaning that if someone is in trouble, no one is around to help.

Massimiliano Signifredi, coordinator for homeless outreach in the Sant’Egidio Community, told Crux the organization is worried “because it seems that with COVID, there is a justification to not do anything,” with the general attitude being, “we’ll do it later when the conditions are better.”

However, “There is a problem here in that there are human lives being discarded, as the pope says. People who, there is always a place lacking for them,” Signifredi said, calling this “unacceptable” because especially during the pandemic, “they need to be protected.”

“There are many, many abandoned buildings, hotels abandoned because there are no tourists. More could be done.”

Signifredi spoke three days after the Sant’Egidio Community issued an appeal urging hotels and other businesses to “act quickly,” bypassing the typical bureaucratic hoops and opening their doors immediately to homeless people at risk.

Since November, at least eight homeless people around Rome have died from exposure to the cold, the most recent of which was a 48-year-old Bangladeshi man who died Saturday morning. His death followed that of another homeless man named Mario Jan. 6, who went to sleep at the entrance of a hotel closed due to COVID-19 and never woke up.

In their appeal, Sant’Egidio noted that while the Church has taken action to help the homeless during the winter, providing beds for some 1,700 of the roughly 3,000 homeless in Rome, the city has done next to nothing, offering just a dozen extra beds in addition to the 800 they normally provide throughout the year.

For Signifredi, the pandemic has made the situation even more dire because “there are new situations of poverty, people who for some months have had to leave their houses because they no longer have money to pay the rent, people who have lost jobs, lost their homes.”

“There is an increase in poverty, also extreme poverty,” he said, noting that members of the community have met several people who in just the past few months landed on the streets for the first time “due to difficulties related to the pandemic.”

Some people who have recently lost homes have taken to sleeping in their cars, Signifredi said, saying that while these people are not on the streets, this is still dangerous, “because sleeping in the car doesn’t mean saving oneself from the cold.”

He stressed the need to intervene immediately in order to prevent further deaths, but also to help these people get back on their feet “rather than becoming homeless in a stable way, so that this is a small parenthesis, and they can return to normal life.”

Some hotels have already responded to the appeal. The owners of one hotel near Rome’s Termini train station, given the lack of tourists, opened up the 24 rooms of their establishment to the homeless, who contribute to the cost either through sponsorship, donations, pension funds, or other means.

That hotel, which works with Sant’Egidio, is already at full capacity.

According to Signifredi, those who argue that homeless people would rather sleep on the streets and don’t want to move inside, even overnight, are wrong.

“There are solutions you can find together. In this season, opening a place up saves a life, even just for the night,” he said, explaining that the Vatican-owned church of San Callisto in Rome has created wooden sleeping cells inside its main room, allowing homeless to sleep inside with warmth and proper social distancing.

The Vatican-owned church of San Callisto in Rome has set up wooden sleeping cells, allowing homeless to sleep inside with warmth and proper social distancing. (Credit: Courtesy of Sant’Egidio.)

Sant’Egidio has two other locations where homeless people are currently being taken in during the night, with a third to be opened in the next few days.

An additional four other small facilities such as bed-and-breakfasts or people who own single rooms up for rent called Sant’Egidio to offer their structures for the homeless after the community’s partnership with the hotel near Termini was featured on a popular Italian television program.

However, this is the response of private individuals, Signifredi said, insisting that “there is a lack of response on the part of institutions” of the city itself.

“Because of this we are asking even more for those who have administrative institutional authority to do their part in deciding to host or find new systems for welcoming the homeless,” he said, noting that members of Sant’Egidio themselves have increased their number of “night rounds” to check on the homeless.

Since Italy currently has a strict 10 p.m. curfew, the rounds are usually made at 7-8 p.m. in order to find as many people as possible and get them to a facility that will host them in time for the curfew.

According to Signifredi, the reason these rounds have increased is that “now there is a danger for those who live on the streets, who are more isolated.”

“All restaurants are closed, so in the evening the city is empty. If someone feels ill and they fall asleep on a bench, in the morning they don’t wake up, because they felt ill and no one helped them,” he said, insisting that this “is a very serious problem for those who don’t have a home. When there are less people around, the health risks are higher.”

Signifredi voiced hope that as Italy continues its vaccine rollout, the situation will improve and that soon opportunities for employment will arise.

People who lost work are not only restaurant owners or servers, or tour guides, but also the people who clean hotels and who wash dishes in restaurants, most of whom have been without work for months because “there is no need for them.”

“They are a large group of people who have ended up in poverty, and certainly the vaccine will help give hope that a normal life returns, that the economy will turn around,” Signifredi said, adding, “We hope it will also help people to get out of poverty.”

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