Covid-19 Conundrum in Rome: More Homeless on Streets as Shelters Shrink

ROME — On an icy evening last month, Akas Kazi, a 35-year-old originally from Bangladesh, huddled under a blanket in the portico of one of Rome’s main post offices, as Red Cross volunteers distributed hot meals of pasta and tea.

Working in a restaurant kitchen had barely paid the bills, but after the restaurant closed six months ago — yet another casualty of the pandemic — Mr. Kazi found himself living on the street. “No work, no money for rent,” he said.

Job searches had been fruitless: “There’s nothing,” he said. And even sleeping on friends’ couches was not an option. “Everyone has problems because of Covid.”

The winter has been especially hard: Since November, 12 homeless people have died on the streets of Rome, where a growing number of people have ended up because of the coronavirus pandemic.

But even as the need increases, those in Rome who care for the homeless are challenged by restrictions put in place to keep people healthy, like those that require beds to be a certain distance apart.

Capacity at overnight shelters dropped sharply, and managing Rome’s so-called “cold strategy” for the winter months “was more complicated this year,” said Alberto Farneti, who runs a homeless assistance program for the Rome branch of the Catholic charity Caritas.

The 200 beds at his shelter at Rome’s Termini train station have dropped to 60. Many local parishes that once offered bunk beds in back rooms to the homeless during the coldest months are not doing so this year.

“It’s a question of protection,” said Marco Pavani, a volunteer at a shelter for older homeless men inside the Church of San Calisto, run by the Community of St. Egidio, a Catholic charity. Capacity there fell to 10 beds from 30, after wooden partitions were erected between the cots to ensure social distancing.

Numbers for Rome’s homeless population vary widely; Caritas estimates that some 7,700 people are on the streets. Some social workers put the number at almost twice that. For City Hall, “those are absurd numbers” and don’t reflect reality, said Veronica Mammì, the municipal councilor in charge of social services, who estimated the number of homeless at closer to 3,000.

Daniele Archibugi of the Institute for Research on Population and Social Policies, Italian Research Council, who is studying the financial impact of the pandemic in Italy, noted that many Italians work in the country’s informal economy and are not recorded, “so one of the problems is to find and reach them.”

That means those people do not get aid, making them especially vulnerable, he said.

Ms. Mammì’s department has a round-the-clock operations center that monitors the number of free beds in shelters, and covers the cost of 40,000 meals a month dished out in soup kitchens.

The department also sponsors rapid virus testing sites for the homeless. But she said in an interview that regional health codes “have made it more difficult for us to put people into shelters.” She added, “We have the funds and are constantly looking for new shelters, but the coronavirus and the need to limit numbers hasn’t helped.”

To help allay some concerns, the Caritas center at Termini Station is serving as an isolation shelter, repeatedly testing its guests, who must remain there for 10 days before they are sent to other refuges.

Of the 200 men who have passed through the shelter in the past month, only one tested positive. “It’s almost miraculous,” said Mr. Farneti. (There is some anecdotal evidence that the isolated lives of homeless people make them less vulnerable to the virus.)

After 10 p.m., when the nationwide curfew kicks in, “Rome becomes a ghost city, something surreal that we Romans have never seen before,” said Debora Diodati, the president of Rome’s Red Cross. “And the homeless suffer because bars and restaurants are closed so it’s more difficult to find food.”

To provide more food, volunteer groups — there are several dozen in Rome, including neighborhood associations — have added more shifts. The downtown Red Cross team averages around 180 meals per shift, prepared in a field kitchen normally used during emergencies, like earthquakes. It began operating when a national lockdown was imposed last March.

Soup-kitchen dining areas have been closed by the pandemic, and the homeless are given bag meals, even when it’s cold or rainy. “Their living conditions, which weren’t great, have gotten worse,” said Michele Ferraris, spokesman for an association that lobbies for the rights of the homeless.

Twice a week, and more often when it’s cold, the Red Cross team brings food and blankets, as well as face masks and hand sanitizer, to those whom Emiliano Loppa, a volunteer coordinator, described as Rome’s “most isolated people.” They live downtown in makeshift camps under the bridges along the Tiber River, under porticos and even in the nooks of ancient ruins.

For years, Pietro, 66, who asked that his last name not be used because he was ashamed of being homeless, eked out a living as an unofficial parking valet at a hospital. But his income dried up last March after the hospital restricted visitors. He spent 10 months sleeping at Termini Station, before finding a spot at the San Calisto church. Sleeping at the station, alongside hundreds of other homeless, “was frightening,” he said.

Another guest at San Calisto, Antonino, 61, ran out of money after losing his job last year and ended up on the street. After three months living under a bridge, he found refuge at the St. Egidio shelter, where he feels secure. “They’ll never send us back out on the streets,” he said.

Ms. Diodati of the Rome Red Cross said her groups had seen an increase in women on the streets, mainly because of the drop in shelter beds, though the numbers remained considerably lower than those of men. “Normally women tend to find hospitality,” she said.

On a recent Sunday, Maria, a Ukranian woman who used to work as a cleaner, picked up a lunch bag offered by St. Egidio after a Mass. “People are afraid to hire me because I have to take public transportation” and risk exposure to the virus, she said.

“We’re coming across people who only arrived on the streets a few months ago,” said Massimiliano Signifredi, a volunteer with St. Egidio. Each January and February, St. Egidio celebrates special Masses commemorating the homeless people who have died on the streets, including Modesta Valenti, who became something of an icon when she died in 1983 after an ambulance refused to transport her.

Over the past year, the number of homeless people has “clearly increased,” Mr. Signifredi said. with a housing crisis adding to the problem, even though the government made evictions illegal during the state of emergency. “We have said that the pandemic unleashed the poverty of the penultimate — those who barely made it to the end of the month and now can’t make it to the 10th, so they come to us or Caritas,” he said.

St. Egidio has opened several new dormitories and also drafted an agreement with a hotel whose rooms had been empty since the pandemic began. But it’s not enough. “We’ve asked authorities to react more quickly to emergencies,” because the emergency was not going away anytime soon, he said.

“The kind of poverty has changed,” said Claudio Campani, a coordinator of the Forum for Street Volunteers, an umbrella group for some 50 associations that assist Rome’s homeless. “Now you have the so-called ‘new poor’ who go to live in their cars before ending up on the street.” And while many homeless people are immigrants, “the number of Italians has increased,” he said.

For Mr. Pavani, the year has been one long cautionary tale.

“The thread that binds us to normality is so fine that it can take very little — loss of work, a weakness, a separation — for that thread to break and for us to fall and lose our life story and roots,” he said.

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