A Red Cross volunteer checks the temperature of a homeless woman while distributing food and disinfectants in front of St. Peter's Square in Rome on March 25, 2020. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

Under St. Peter’s dome, Catholic charities help homeless stay safe from coronavirus

VATICAN CITY (RNS) — While governments around the world enact strict measures to attempt to limit the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, people without a fixed home or living in extreme poverty remain stranded in deserted cities.

“Right now, the homeless continue to be homeless,” Pope Francis said an interview with his biographer Austen Ivereigh published Wednesday (April 8) by several publications, including Commonweal magazine. 

Francis pointed to a photo of a temporary shelter for the homeless, set up in a parking lot in Las Vegas, where people slept between white lines on the pavement despite the fact that many of the city’s hotels were empty.

“But the homeless cannot go to a hotel,” he said. “That is the throwaway culture in practice.”


RELATED: Click here for complete coverage of COVID-19 on RNS


In Italy, the first country to put a nationwide quarantine in place, the Catholic Church has taken on the responsibility of assisting the homeless during the pandemic. 

“I think that when the pope makes these appeals to welcome those without a home and not merely focus on ourselves, it’s very important because it rekindles the conscience of many Christians,” said Massimiliano Signifredi, a volunteer and spokesperson for the Community of St. Egidio, in an interview April 2 with Religion News Service.

The Community of St. Egidio, a large lay Catholic movement in Rome, has worked closely with Pope Francis since his election in 2013 to support his work for immigrants, refugees, peacekeeping and the poor.

Signifredi said the Italian government has been mainly concerned with enforcing the quarantine and ensuring safety, and as a consequence “nothing was done” to safeguard the homeless.

“It’s the church that for the most part takes care of the poor,” he said. “Catholic associations and the pope are the ones on the move.”

On March 9, Italy enforced a nationwide quarantine. Citizens are not allowed to leave their homes except for emergencies, essential supplies or work reasons. To move about the city, Italians must carry documentation certifying their place of origin and destination.

Anyone without this documentation can be fined $400 to $5,000 by police. 

Some of the homeless have been fined even after they told officers that they didn’t have a home, Signifredi said.

“They didn’t believe them, and they were fined,” he said. 

The estimated 8,000 homeless in Rome also lack access to adequate information and tools to protect against contracting the virus.

“It’s a big problem to remain helpless before such a difficult situation and the homeless are the most exposed to contagion,” Signifredi said. “There is the general issue of being outside in a city where everything is closed.”

“But the structures that welcome the homeless have remained open,” he added.

The volunteers of St. Egidio, who mostly work from home or have lost their day jobs, now have more time to dedicate to helping the poor, he said. The St. Egidio truck that once a week would patrol the city to offer food and shelter has doubled its efforts.

The Catholic movement offers 100 beds to the homeless and warm meals in its various structures in Rome. It lengthened the time allocated for meals and ensured that those wishing to participate are safely distanced from one another.

Pope Francis offered Palazzo Migliori, a large estate dating to the 1800s within the Vatican, to the community last November to use as a shelter for the homeless.

St. Egidio also offers counseling, hand sanitizers and masks.

“They are scared like everybody else,” Signifredi said, “especially those who live on the streets.”

Rome has not been hit as hard by the coronavirus as Italy’s north, and that, coupled with the efforts made by Catholic Charities, has ensured low contagion rates among the homeless of the city, he said.

St. Egidio is not the only Catholic organization working to protect the homeless on the ground.

“Caritas Italy is continuing its support on basic needs and soup kitchen to the poorest,” said Aloysius John, secretary-general for the Catholic charity network Caritas Internationalis, during a virtual news conference April 3.

“We are before a major crisis, which does not resemble any other crisis we have known. It is global, it affects everyone and no country is spared,” he said, adding that while this represents an enormous challenge, it is also “a call for global solidarity.”