Over the course of a single day walking the streets of Rome, Giulia*, one of the city’s many rough sleepers, was stopped three times by Italian police.
They presented her with a uniquely cruel catch-22: cough up documentary proof that you’re allowed to leave the home you do not have, or face a hefty fine and possible jail-time.
Giulia was at a loss. “She told them, ‘I’m sleeping in the Rifiugo Sant’Anna,’ a shelter in Rome,” recalled Alessandro Radicchi, the founder of homeless charity Binario95, recounting Giulia’s story on her behalf. But the police were nonplussed. “[They] told her, ‘Then you have to stay all day next to your shelter’”.
Giulia’s experience is a grimly common one for many of Italy’s over 50,000 rough sleepers, who have been hit particularly hard by the countrywide lockdown.
Imposed on March 9 and expected to last until at least April 3, the lockdown seeks to slow the transmission of the country’s increasingly lethal coronavirus outbreak, which has infected some 45,000 people and killed over 4,000.
The government has urged citizens to “restare a casa” (stay at home), and has banned all but the most “essential” outdoor tasks, including sightseeing, walking in the park and, vaguely, “loitering.”
But the harsh new rules have caught out the country’s most vulnerable. According to L’Avvocato di Strada, a legal firm dedicated to helping Rome’s homeless, rough sleepers in multiple Italian cities are getting fined for being outside.
The organisation, as quoted by left-wing Italian newspaper La Repubblica, said that homeless people have been threatened with punishment for violation of the lockdown in the cities of Modena, Verona, Milano, and Siena, among others.
On 16 March, the organisation begged Italy’s premier, Giuseppe Conte, to act fast and ensure that “nobody is left behind. For the good of all.”
Italy’s bungled implementation of its own lockdown has implications for other countries on the verge of imposing similar measures.
While the government in the UK has provided relief for rough sleepers in the form of a £3.2m stimulus, it has done “nothing to support the tens of thousands of people who live and work in hostel accommodation,” said Seyi Obakin, the chief executive of youth homelessness charity Centrepoint, in an email to Novara.
“Without urgent action, the government risks turning homelessness hostels into petri dishes,” he explained, “This will leave some of the country’s most vulnerable people unable to follow the government’s own guidelines to self-isolate and means asking dedicated hostel staff to put themselves and their families at risk as they do their vital work.”
Obakin has demanded that the government furnish homeless shelters with personal protection equipment, including masks, gloves and thermometers.
“Without being able to identify who has contracted Covid-19,” Obakin said, “it will be impossible to effectively isolate vulnerable residents in shared accommodation facilities.” He also hopes for an “urgent package of financial support.”
Lessons from Italy.
Giulia’s predicament, at least, is perhaps a unique symptom of Italy’s lockdown, which has been administered with typical bureaucratic flair.
To go outside, people under quarantine in Italy must fill out and sign a long-winded declaration form, giving their names, the date, their reasons for going outside, an assurance that they have not tested positive for Covid-19 and the address of their home or workplace. Failure to fill out the form truthfully can result in a fine, or up to 12 years in prison.
“Let’s say maybe a homeless person has a document,” posited Radicchi, “On the ‘Where am I going’ section, what do you write? ‘I’m wandering?’”
Radicchi has advised homeless people to write explicitly that they are homeless on the declaration forms, putting the number of whichever Binario95 shelter they’re staying at as their ‘workplace telephone number’. If they’re fined— and several people have been —the charity will foot the bill. (In the case of Giulia, another charity, Carità, paid the fine.)
“The policeman, if he’s not a bad person, will telephone us and we’ll explain that it’s one of our people,” he explained.
Binario95 has also run an awareness campaign parodying the government’s “Io resto a casa” message, with the slogan, “Io vorrei restare a casa”—I wish I could stay at home.
But it’s not just the threat of legal recrimination impacting the country’s homeless.
Being homeless and unable to practice social distancing when a deadly virus is spreading at a rapid speed is immensely difficult – especially when much of rough sleepers’ time is spent wandering the forbidden streets and crammed into shelters. “We have in Rome 15,000 homeless people, and 1,000 places to sleep,” said Radicchi, “For every fifteen people, just one has a shelter.”
And if somebody gets sick, thus unfurls more Kafkaesque confusion: “When we find a homeless person with one or two symptoms,” he continued, “we call the designated number and they ask, ‘Is he breathing?’ We say, ‘Of course he’s breathing, and they ask, ‘But in a proper way?’ and if we say yes, they say the person has to stay at home.”
La Comunita di Sant’Egidio, a charity with strong ties to the Vatican that shelters all over Rome, has tried to square the need for food and shelter with the need to socially distance, making its shelters available to the homeless well beyond its regular opening hours.
It has also opened its volunteer-staffed kitchens 24/7. “If they don’t want to eat inside because they’re afraid they will be sick, we give them packed lunch boxes,” explained Massimiliano Signifredi, the homeless coordinator at Sant’Egidio, “We give choice to people.”
The kindness of strangers.
Yet homeless people still rely heavily on help from strangers, who are now largely prohibited from going outside.
“In ordinary times the homeless wander in a city where they can have help from the shops, from people working in bars that give them coffee,” said Radicchi, “In this period they are wandering in a city where everything is closed, with no people around. There is more loneliness than ever.”
What’s more, the lockdown rules aren’t clear on whether ‘volunteering’ counts as an essential service. “Most of the volunteers stopped going into the street,” Radicchi continued, “Nobody has the courage to go around and give them food. It’s not clear if they even can.”
Signifredi, at least, says that Sant’Egidio has some cachet with the Roman authorities, giving volunteers an effective alibi if they’re questioned about being outside.
He also made an appeal to those stuck at home to save some of the food they cook for their families for the local homeless, which people have already been doing. “It’s working,” he remarked, “Even at the time of coronavirus.”
Local government hasn’t exactly been forthcoming, originally providing zero assistance to the homeless in its €25bn “Cura L’Italia” stimulus. And it has actively hampered the efforts of charities like Binario95. “One week ago, we had direction from the municipality that our sheltering centre cannot host new people to prevent the spread of the virus”, said Radicchi, “who is out is out, who is in, is in.”
But he is not giving up and has lobbied the government to change its mind, with some success. The Municipality of Rome will surrender enough capital to allow Binario95’s shelters to stay open for full days for at least another month. The municipality has also offered hotel spaces for the homeless to self-quarantine.
Noting the irony of the relative ease with which he was able to secure the government’s help, after years of inaction, Radicchi hopes that the government won’t abandon the homeless once the crisis is over:“The problem is always here, was always here and probably will always be here.”
*Identifying details have been changed to protect anonymity
Ben Munster is a Rome-based journalist with bylines in Private Eye, New Statesman, Esquire and the Hackney Gazzette. He is the Rome correspondent at the Financial Times’ Sifted