ROME – As protests in Italy increase among the sectors hardest-hit by enduring coronavirus lockdowns, one Italian charity has expanded its services to Rome’s homeless population, which is expected to rise in the near future if pandemic-related closures aren’t resolved soon.
“The people who live on the street are double-victims of the pandemic,” said Massimiliano Signifredi, coordinator for homeless outreach in the Sant’Egidio Community, in an interview with Crux.
“First, because they can get sick and they don’t have a house, and second, because of the pandemic, the bars and restaurants that gave them food, sandwiches, don’t give them out anymore because they are closed. It’s a situation of great need,” he said.
Sant’Egidio, Pope Francis’s favorite of the so-called “new movements,” is dedicated to social justice and runs several homeless shelters and soup kitchens in Rome.
Since the coronavirus first broke out, caring for the homeless has become more complicated, Signifredi said, explaining that “with the pandemic, the places that welcomed homeless have had to reduce the number of people who enter, because they use the bathrooms, the distance between the beds in the rooms is too close, so you have to consider that distance is needed.”
During the cold winter months, which claimed the lives of 13 people living on the streets of Rome who died of exposure to low temperatures, Sant’Egidio coordinated with the Vatican-owned church of San Callisto in the Trastevere neighborhood in creating wooden sleeping cells inside the church’s main room, allowing homeless to sleep inside with warmth and proper social distancing.
They also made an agreement with the owner of a hotel near Rome’s Termini train station who, given the lack of tourists, opened up the 24 rooms of their establishment to the homeless for a modest rate, paid either through pension funds, emergency income, or sponsorship.
Now, these efforts have expanded.
Since January, Signifredi said Sant’Egidio has added 100 more sleeping spaces for homeless, most of which are inside churches, such as the Good Shepherd church in Trastevere, which now has bunks for 10 people to sleep at night. The Community of St. Paul in Ostiense has set up eight beds for the homeless, and a gym in Toscolana currently closed due to the COVID lockdown has also provided space.
Although the weather is getting warmer as Italy transitions into spring, there has been a lot of rain in recent days, making access to a warm, dry place to sleep even more important for those living on the streets.
Sant’Egidio’s contracts with hotels – one of the hardest-hit industries in Italy due to the loss of tourism – have also increased, which is something Signifredi says helps both the homeless and hotel owners.
“Not all homeless people have nothing, some homeless for example have a pension, or they’ve asked for emergency income. So, they have a small amount, 100, 200, 300, 400, 500 euros. With this small amount of money, we’ve made agreements with hotels and they make available some rooms of their hotel not for free, but for a reduced price,” Signifredi said.
In January, the hotel near Termini Station was the only one making these offers. Now, there are 10, meaning “a good number of people” now have places to sleep, Signifredi said.
“We try to help everyone to find a place. If someone can’t pay anything, we find a sponsor, someone who is earning,” he said, adding, “The pandemic has created new forms of poverty, but there are also people who have a fixed income who are earning and can be more generous.”
Signifredi noted that on Monday, the president of Sant’Egidio, Marco Impagliazzo, had a private meeting with Pope Francis at the Vatican.
According to Italian news agency ANSA, part of Impagliazzo’s discussion with the pope touched on the grown of both poverty and solidarity during the coronavirus.
Signifredi said he believes this solidarity will be crucial going forward.
“Right now, we have not noticed a great increase in the number of people on the street,” he said, noting that the biggest jump in numbers was at the beginning of the pandemic, when they would find people sleeping at a friend’s house, or in their car, or even on the streets because they had lost their jobs and their homes.
However, Signifredi said he believes the number of poor and homeless will rise again if lengthy lockdowns continue.
“The problem of the pandemic has made us understand that we were in a situation of great precarity,” he said, noting that the rich are largely unaffected, but the poor or those just getting by are the ones who have suffered the most.
Looked at from this perspective, “we are building an inhumane world,” Signifredi said, “so we must help each other more. In this sense the message that we must learn from the pandemic is that we protect each other together.”
He stressed the importance of access to anti-COVID vaccines, saying that “If only the rich are vaccinated, the problem of the pandemic won’t be solved.”
“The more people who are vaccinated, the more we are protected, so we must try to make it so that everyone is vaccinated, even all the poor,” he said, noting that migrants are the most vulnerable, since most have no legal status and not yet enrolled into the healthcare system, meaning they can’t request a vaccination.
Pope Francis himself has offered free Pfizer vaccinations to more than 1,000 homeless people thanks to a donation of doses. The first round of shots was given just before Easter, meaning those who got the jab should be returning soon for the second.
“This can be a lesson for everyone, and it can be a good practice for the future, because it’s true that COVID is a storm, but these storms can be frequent,” Signifredi said, adding, “it’s not an isolated case, it can happen every few years. So, we should learn some lessons from COVID.”
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen