Vatican provides homeless with showers under Pope's initiative: 'They treat you like a friend here'

Pope Francis has led a drive to help the poor since he took up the papacy two years ago

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The Independent Online

As thousands of summer tourists lined up in St Peter’s Square to catch a glimpse of its magnificent basilica, an Italian woman sat slumped under its Renaissance colonnade in a dramatically different queue.

Elisabetta, a 48-year-old widow from Rome, and her son were among the homeless who had travelled across town to the Vatican for a hot shower and clean underwear.

“I was kicked out of my house with no warning a year ago and I have been living on the streets ever since,” Elisabetta said. “We were renting illegally so we couldn’t say anything. From one day to the next I don’t know where I’ll end up.”

In a controversial initiative spearheaded by Pope Francis last year, three showers were constructed for the homeless inside a nondescript lavatory block beside the colonnade designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in the late 17th century. The initiative was followed by an offer of free haircuts from volunteer barbers, all part of the Pope’s drive to help the poor since he took up the papacy two years ago.

With an economy that has almost entirely stalled since the global financial crash, and youth unemployment at around 45 per cent, more and more Italians have been forced to turn to handouts.

Elisabetta, who declined to give her surname, used to work as a cook but says her work dropped off as the economic crisis worsened last year. Her landlord told her and her 22-year-old son to leave their home in the leafy Roman quarter of Monte Mario.

“First we used to sleep in Piazza Venezia, then in a church on the Aventine Hill but the priest didn’t like it and began to close the doors at night,” she said.

“So we began sleeping in trains but they started locking them up so we transferred to Ostiense railway station. I’ve been robbed three times.”

Elisabetta said the Vatican’s showers were wonderful. “They treat you like a friend here,” she said. The shower initiative was proposed by the Pope’s almoner, a Polish archbishop named Konrad Krajewski, after he met a Sardinian homeless man called Franco on the streets of Rome last October.

Mr Krajewski invited him for dinner but Franco said he was too embarrassed to go because of his body odour. Mr Krajewski had a word with the pontiff who immediately gave the order for the showers to be built inside the toilet block once reserved for pilgrims.

The facilities are wedged between a tiny Vatican post office and the grand entrance to the Apostolic Palace, where royalty and heads of state often meet the Pope flanked by Swiss Guards.

The walls are painted a fashionable slate grey and there are gleaming white basins. As well as a shower, the homeless receive a change of underwear, a towel, soap, toothpaste, razor, shaving cream and deodorant.

Outside in the square the mid-morning temperatures are well above 30C and tourists are already scrambling for the shade.

Elisabetta and her son are joined by around 30 men and women, mostly from Eastern Europe, waiting patiently under the columns.

Around 140 men and women reportedly pass through here every day.