March 30, 2011

ITALY: Not enough help for the homeless

Rome / / Articles / March 30, 2011

Figures for the homeless vary but what is certain is that there aren't enough beds for them all

By Bija Knowles

I wait for the last train from Termini on Friday night and a man, probably in his 60s but looking older, asks me if the train goes to Civitavecchia. Yes, I say, it's the last stop. We get on the train and he sits opposite me, offering me a tic-tac. He's homeless and wants to go to Florence, where he can work as a street artist. He shows me his pictures, which are child-like pencil drawings. He has a bad cough and as I get off at my stop half an hour later, I think of him with guilt, about to spend a cold night in a dark and lonely station.

It's a desperate story repeated many thousands of times across the country. In Rome alone there are between 6,000 and 8,000 people with no fixed abode according to a June 2010 report based on figures from the Catholic relief organisation Caritas and the Christian community of S. Egidio.

With night-time temperatures in Rome dipping as low as -6° in December 2010 and hovering around zero for most of January and February this year, sleeping on the streets is not for the vulnerable, weak or old. Unfortunately, these are often the people you see huddling in sleeping bags and blankets at stations such as Termini, Ostiense and Tiburtina, in improvised tents along the Tiber, on steps and along railway lines: men and women, some old and in need of healthcare and assistance. One third of Rome's homeless are thought to be political refugees and asylum seekers.

Caritas, S. Egidio, churches and voluntary organisations offer services for the homeless. There are 33 canteens open in the evening and 36 official hostels or dormitories. But it's not enough. Mario Marazziti, spokesman for S. Egidio, was recently quoted as saying that there are only 2,700 places in the hostels run by the city and the voluntary sector, about 1,000 homeless are in make-shift camps in the city's suburbs and the rest are left to rough it on the streets.

So Rome has a huge problem on its hands. Fabrizio Schedid is the coordinator at Binario 95, a day centre for people with no fixed abode at Termini station. Does he think the services and infrastructure for homeless people in Rome are sufficient? "Absolutely not. A person asking for a place in a dormitory has to wait six months. You only have to walk around the streets to see that the problem is not being dealt with by the services provided."

One of the main difficulties, according to Schedid, is that the authorities do not know the size of the problem. While a count of people sleeping in Rome's stations on 17 October 2010 came up with the figure 383, this in no way tallies with the estimated 2,700 referred to by Mario Marazziti from S. Egidio. Schedid explains: "As there has never been a comprehensive headcount of people sleeping rough, the scale of the problem hasn't been quantified and therefore it cannot be adequately addressed."

While an extra 650 hostel places are made available during the cold period from December to March, these emergency winter beds are closed on 31 March. It's a grim April Fool that from 1 April onwards these people will be on the streets again.

The difficulties of homelessness don't stop if you are lucky enough to have a bed in one of the city's hostels. Some dormitories sleep scores of people in one open space while others have small windowless rooms sleeping four people in bunk beds. Some accommodation is without hot water or heating.

One of the misconceptions you often hear from the general public is that homeless people have chosen this life. Schedid sighs: "There is a lot of ignorance about homeless people and of course most of them do not choose to live like that." The factors that lead people to lose their homes vary and the catalyst is often a misfortune that could happen to anyone, such as losing a job, an eviction, an illness, a bereavement or domestic problems. These situations can, in turn, lead to loneliness, depression, poverty, drug use and the break-up of a person's network of friends and family.

The first port of call for anyone without a home in Rome is the 24-hour hotline – 800 440022 – run by the city's emergency advice centre. Any member of the public who sees someone sleeping rough in need of help can also call this number. The help centre on platform one at Termini station also gives advice and directions. The people who passed through there in January 2011 give some indication of the demographics of Rome's senza fissa dimora: 83 per cent were male and 17 per cent female; 81 per cent were non-Italian and 19 per cent Italian; nearly half were aged 30-49.

Another complicating factor is that some hostel beds are occupied on a long-term basis by people who have found their way off the streets, but have not been able to move on from the temporary accommodation. Rome-born Daniele at Binario 95 in Termini station said he has been staying at a hostel on Via Marsala since 2005. In the 1990s he was a chef before he began sleeping rough in a van or in a supermarket storage cupboard. He now goes to the day centre to rest after a night in the hostel and an early start working at a market.

Daniele says: "It's a life where the day-to-day things dominate – and every day there are new problems. One of the most difficult things is that you are in constant contact with other people at the hostel so getting on well with others is important. You also have to look out for others, especially older people."

Day centres such as Binario 95 provide important resources that make a huge difference, including a warm and welcoming atmosphere where people can talk, wash clothes, learn skills or just relax.

However, the cheerful home-made cushions and welcoming smiles at the day centre belie some harsh realities. The centre's coordinator, Schedid admits: "We try to remove obstacles for people where we can but sometimes you have to accept that there is no ideal solution. To do social work in Italy, you have to really believe in what you're doing."

About the Author

Bija Knowles is a freelance journalist based outside Rome, Italy.
She graduated in Italian and English Literature from the
University of Birmingham, UK,
and her main areas of interest are art, travel and history in Italy.