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An evening at Caritas hostel in Rome: normal lives fallen into poverty

A journey among the “new” poor of Rome’s Caritas hostel and soup kitchen: many young people who lost their jobs as a result of the crisis, affected by illnesses or other problems. Increasing alcohol abuse and gambling dependence

The Caritas hostel “Luigi Di Liegro” in Via Marsala, Rome, a few steps away from Termini station. The pristine premises were recently renovated, the doors painted red, yellow, green and blue. The colored coming and going of “new” and “old” poor – young and old, Italians and foreigners, industrious operators and volunteers workers – confers a colorful, pleasing touch to the environment, which is warm and welcoming. At the centre stands something similar to a reception counter. Benches are placed at the sides, coupled by an unusual bulletin board that is a sign of the times, with a set of power outlets to recharge mobile phones. The respective owners stand on guard of their treasure. The notice “Do not leave your mobile phones unattended” is an inescapable warning. Nonetheless, every evening at 5:00 p.m. the doors are opened to provide a bed for the night to those with no other option than sleeping on the street. The hostel can host up to 185 people, allowed until the next morning at 8:30 a.m.

180 guests during the night, 120 are Italians. At present, 180 people are hosted overnight, 120 of whom are Italian. Among them figure 56 women, said Silvia Pistillo, in charge of the contiguous soup kitchen, which distributes 400-500 meals every evening. The rule is not to stay more than three weeks, notwithstanding exceptions for serious cases. There is always great movement of people of all ages and nationalities. Here too – confirming data collected in the recent Caritas Italy Report on social exclusion – there are increasing numbers of young people (+8%) and Italian citizens, owing to the economic crisis.

“They are people with various forms of discomfort, notably caused by addictions and gambling.”

In the room where Silvia busily processes files, replies to phone calls with requests of all kinds and printed emails on the new guests on her desk, figures a portrait of the historical founder of Caritas Rome, Fr Luigi Di Liegro. From a fridge displaying the warning “neither food nor drinks”, the doctor on duty takes medicines for the guests. The rooms are located on two floors, all of which with six beds, three on each side, separated by a wall, with small lockers with padlocks and very little privacy. The light goes out for everyone at 11 p.m. In another room some surf the Internet, others read or do crossword puzzles. In the great hall of the soup kitchen, however, after dinner a giant screen is pulled down to watch TV together: usually films, fiction or sport. Certainly a much harder choice than in the family, but the Caritas workers negotiate, or decide. Some of the guests even improvise a charade in the lobby. This time it’s a small, elegant and slender middle-aged woman wearing sunglasses that conceal her light-blue eyes, and a long pink dress. She rails incomprehensible phrases against something or someone. Another lady with sub-Saharan somatic traits complains to a nearby woman speaking Roman jargon. A clearly disoriented African homeless asks for a blanket for the autumn night he will spend outdoors.

 

“Benches don’t’ spare anyone.” “I slept 20 days on a bench and it was the hardest time of my life, worse than being ill, than loosing my job and than the death of my mother,” said Massimo, 45, single, from Rome, wearing a blue jumpsuit and speaking with a placid look on his face. A year ago he found shelter in the Caritas hostel. “I felt like a fish out of water, I was not used to it. I worked in the construction sector for seven years, then seven more years as a watchman. But the company shut down in 2011, at the peak of the crisis. I had one good salary, an average standard of living, did not even know what a hard-discount store was.” Then he discovered he had a serious disease and could not be exposed to heat or cold. He had to avoid getting tired and with his scanty 290-euro invalidity benefit he could no longer afford to pay the 400-euro rent of the apartment where he lived in Piazza Vittorio in Rome. His father lived in an occupied social housing unit and couldn’t host him. His mother died a year ago. He rapidly precipitated into extreme poverty.

“Benches don’t spare anyone – he said to describe his worst moments – Benches don’t answer; they don’t speak to you. When you sleep all you feel is that you are losing your dignity. You are forced to face yourself. I used to say, with scorn, ‘look at this bum.’ Now I look at him with respect.”

Massimo is always smiling. He faced the situation with acceptance, will-power, and realism, which is the term that recurs more often in the guests’ accounts. “I told myself: if I don’t cross the track I will stop. But if I stop the train will pass. I try to give life a meaning in the most dignified way. I would like to have tranquility and peace.” He ‘s on a waiting-list for a family home. He spends his days going to church, looking for a good meal in Rome’s soup kitchens – “what I missed the most were homemade dishes. I found them at the Nativity parish, they have great cooks” – and day hospital treatment. He finds this experience enriching for “the many true friends I have found. The ones I had before have all disappeared. The stories of the people I meet now are characterized by incredible humanity.”

“Standing before the infernal machine.” “When you’re sitting on a stool in front of a slot-machine, an infernal machine that is worse than alcohol, you have a constant lump your throat and you stop reasoning until you spend all the money you have, even 1000-2000 euro. I used to get paid my salary on Friday and by Monday everything had been spent in that damned Bingo. It was my way of letting out steam. It’s a terrible disease.” He is gradually overcoming his addictions thanks to the help of the hostel’s social workers and of the Gemelli hospital. Giuseppe, 59, from a village in Sardinia, has been living in Rome for the past 37 years. He lost everything: his home with his wife and two children and his job in a construction site, as a result of wine and gambling. “I will stay here until I can, until I get old.” He entrusts his monthly 290-Euro invalidity benefit (he has eye problems) to the social workers, to avoid all temptations. “They give me 50 Euros a week for cigarettes.” The hardest time in his life were the three-four years spent with acquaintances from Sardinia in a shack in the country outside of Rome, where they had an orchard: “It was freezing. We couldn’t wash ourselves. I woke up one morning with broken teeth. I had drunk so much I hadn’t realized I had fallen on the ground. Thanks God I am emerging from it. I wouldn’t wish it to anyone.” Now every day he goes to the library and browses the Internet to read articles on artistic themes. As a young man he used to play the clarinet in a local band in his town of origin. His seemingly abrupt manners – “Here I have a few friends, I do my own business” – are suddenly starred with poetry. His eyes light up: “I like music, music is life.”

A Law School degree in Ukraine, she works as caregiver. Galigna is Ukrainian and she bursts with vitality, but with the towel on her head concealing her red hair she seems Syrian. Galigna is 32 years old and holds a Law School degree not recognized in Italy, where she lived for five years working with families as a caregiver or nanny. Her mother died last year. She said she wants to live wherever she will find a job – Italy, Canada or Switzerland makes no difference. “I have no dreams. I am a realist: first work, then a home, and then the family.” When she is left without accomodation, in order not to sleep in the streets, she goes to the Caritas hostel. She’s been here a week “until I find something. I’m now doing a trial period in a pizzeria in Ciampino. For six days work they gave me 50 Euros. ” She holds a valid residence permit and she’s taking a driving license. “I want to study to become a nurse. Of course, sometimes I wonder what I did in these past five years. But the important thing is health. ” She walked away with a ruddy laugh, mirroring her rubicund face. In the past days, when she returns late at night from Ciampino, she distributes left-over pizzas to the poor of the Termini station. “They are waiting for me. If I can, I also give alms.”

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