The Vatican has revised its public restroom renovation to include showers for the homeless, as Pope Francis' ambassador to the poor launches similar projects across Rome.
VATICAN CITY — When a bishop invited Franco, a homeless man originally from Sardinia, to have dinner with him last month, Franco told him: "Father, I can't come with you to the restaurant because I smell."
It was then that perhaps the most critical need for Rome's homeless became apparent. "Nobody starves to death here," Franco says. "You can manage to get a sandwich every day. But there's nowhere to wash or go to the toilet."
The bishop in question is Papal Almoner Konrad Krajewski, the man in charge of distributing money to the poor. He informed the Vatican, and work will begin next week on three showers in the public restrooms under the colonnade of St. Peter's Square. There will also be other facilities specifically for the homeless around the Basilica, where they can wash and change their clothes beneath the Apostolic Palace. Also on the order of Bishop Krajewski, 10 other Roman parishes most frequented by the homeless have already had showers constructed.
Krajewski, known to all as "Don Corrado," has for years brought provisions and aid to those who live on the streets. Pope Francis appointed him to this position for that reason, entrusting him to provide for those enduring hardships.
According to the Polish bishop, his meeting with Franco last month really opened his eyes. "I had just come out of the Santo Spirito Church, where I had been to confession," he says. "I met Franco, who told me that day was his 50th birthday and that he had been living on the streets for 10 years." The bishop invited him to go to dinner with him, but Franco declined. "I took him with me anyway, and we went to a Chinese restaurant. During dinner, he explained to me that you could always find food in Rome, but what was missing was places to wash," Krajewski adds.
All around Rome there are Caritas soup kitchens, a canteen in the Community of Sant'Egidio, as well as many other parochial initiatives. Those who live on the streets know where to go. There are some places where it's possible to have a shower. The Community of Sant'Egidio even published a handbook called Where To Eat, Sleep And Wash — but Franco explained that "those places are always very crowded, so time is limited." Instead, he prefers to set money aside and book a shower room at Termini Station from time to time.
"Jesus always uses the word "today""
Krajewski, who had previously considered food the primary need of the homeless, didn't waste any time after meeting Franco. He is accustomed to acting immediately, without making grand plans or organizing fundraisers that take months. "In the Bible, Jesus always uses the word "today," and it's today that we must respond to people's needs," he says.
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He decided to visit a dozen or so areas around the city where homeless people are used to going and, if they weren't already there, he asked that showers be built — all paid for by the Pope's charity. They are not expensive projects, nor are the facilities designed to become big community hubs. Rather, they are a service for people in the neighborhoods where public restrooms are closed and where the homeless can't go into cafés or bars to use the toilets.
"It's not simple," explains Krajewski, "because it is much easier to make sandwiches to hand out than run a shower service. We need volunteers, towels and underwear." He tells the parish priests that "the Holy Father is paying" and that providence never fails to assist. Through his foundation, famed singer Andrea Bocelli has made a substantial donation, and a senator from northern Italy has requested that showers be built in the districts that don't have them.
For a long time, the Vatican's governing powers had been planning the renovation of the restrooms under the colonnades, just a few dozen meters away from the bronze doors on the right-hand side of the Basilica. The information from Franco, who also told the bishop that he had lost many companions to the cold over the years, caused significant variation to the project as soon as it got the go-ahead from Pope Francis.
Three showers for the homeless will be put under Gianlorenzo Bernini's incredible colonnades, one of the most beautiful and most visited places in the world. When asked whether tourists might turn their noses up at these facilities, Krajewski says, "The Basilica exists in order to keep the Body of Christ, and we serve Jesus' suffering body by serving the poor. And always, in the history of Rome, the poor have congregated around churches."
There won't be signs to highlight where these showers are in various parts of the city because the service is dedicated to those who already live in the area, in order to relieve the big support centers. Another project Krajewski is working on involves pupils of a hairdressing school so that the homeless can also get their hair cut from time to time.
Being able to wash and keep themselves clean will make the homeless — the "pilgrims without a home," as Krajewski calls them — less vulnerable to disease. And it all started with Franco, who felt ashamed about being invited to a restaurant on his 50th birthday on a sunny October day.