ROME – As an historic heat wave sweeps over the Italian peninsula, Catholic charities in Rome are left to tackle growing numbers of homeless at risk.
“The situation in Rome is pretty critical, with spots in shelters highly reduced,” said Carlo Santoro, who heads a soup kitchen for the homeless run by the Sant’Egidio Community, a lay Catholic movement dedicated to ecumenism and interfaith dialogue as well as conflict resolution, in addition to various humanitarian efforts.
“The situation is very, very critical, and we are increasingly worried about this,” he added.
Homeless persons in Rome are used to getting by in difficult situations. You can see them curled up on benches and sidewalks, clinging to the small alcoves of shade. But the recent high temperatures that reached Italy from the African continent represent a whole new threat. Add to that pollution born from a sprawling metropolis such as Rome, and the danger for the most vulnerable, including those living on the streets, grows considerably.
Extreme heat can be just as dangerous as freezing temperatures. Between 2005 and 2016, over 23,000 people died in Italy due to heat waves. Since the year 2000 up to 7,700 people have died due to high temperatures in Rome alone, according to the Italian environmental association Legambiente.
This August, as Italy stretches through its last heat wave of the year, Catholic charities are attempting to provide assistance to the large number of homeless, including immigrants, exposed to the scorching sun.
Santoro told Crux that while the numbers of homeless people have not varied, he registered an “increase in the suffering of people on the street,” with many living with debilitating yet non-deadly diseases.
With most of the locals gone, Rome floods with tourists in the summer while shops, stores and restaurants shut down. This also means that many services for the poor close, leaving homeless with fewer choices of where to turn for food, shelter and healthcare.
There are between 10,000 and 15,000 homeless people in Rome, but just over 300 beds in shelters available. Catholic charities, such as Sant’Egidio and Caritas, offer soup kitchens throughout the summer thanks to a rotation system.
Santoro says that this summer they’ve served between 600-700 people a day at his soup kitchen near the center of Rome. The first thing they bring out is water, he added, and visitors are free to stay during the hot afternoon hours. He emphasized that while this is an emergency shelter, it is also a place to meet and build friendships.
“They know they can count on us,” Santoro said. “We have a personal relationship with many people on the street, we know them by name and we have a rapport with them. This is important in a city that doesn’t have a good relationship with the poor. They are seen as disturbing the equilibrium of the city and ruining the artistic and monumental image of Rome, but we are in search of a more humane Rome.”
Through Sant’Egidio, Santoro visits about 60 homeless near St. Peter’s Square every Tuesday as well as patrolling the city by bus. When he sees that someone is missing he goes into action.
“Being there,” he says, is the first step toward helping the poor.
“We go around and look from person to person, especially those most at risk and whom the heat can hurt the most like those suffering from high pressure or those who are particularly alone,” he said.
Pope Francis has made concern for the poor a cornerstone of his pontificate. He has dined with the homeless on many occasions, including on his birthday, and created the world day of the poor. Under his pontificate, initiatives catering to homeless people have multiplied in the eternal city – from outings to the circus to barber services on sidewalks.
Improvised soup kitchens offered by Catholic charities recently drew criticism from shop owners in Rome. A hotel owner near Rome’s Termini train station lamented the large number of homeless people who squat near his hotel after having had a meal offered by the Vatican next door.
“We don’t think it’s appropriate for the Knights of the Order of Malta and the Vatican to set up tables on the sidewalks,” the hotel owner told local reporters July 26, adding that the homeless discouraged tourists and clients.
For Santoro, an important aspect to fighting poverty and helping the homeless is changing the mentality of the society around them.
“Whoever feels this annoyance toward those living on the streets should try experiencing it from the point of view of the homeless,” he said. “The best way to help them is not to move them but not to let them live on the streets, slowly starting to help them get out.”
He understands that this represents an enormous challenge, one made worse by the fact that the struggling economy of Italy does not view aiding the poor as a top priority at the moment.
There are still elements of optimism, Santoro said, especially the increased interest that he’s registered on the part of young people who volunteer via internet to help the homeless.
“It’s important that people, especially the young, begin to show availability toward the poor,” he said, adding that it’s a way to “show the good side of Rome.”
Catholic charities have “a pretty relevant importance” in Rome and Italy as a whole, Santoro said, catering to a wide number of people in need. With institutions struggling amidst economic and political struggles, they often represent the last frontier of assistance.
The key, he continued, is the collaboration and cooperation between all parts of society, from government to religious organizations and including individual citizens.
“The more there is a fabric, a network for the poor, the more this city will breathe a more humane air,” Santoro said.
“Often the danger is not the great cold or the great heat,” he said, “but the great loneliness.”