Pope Funds Showers For Homeless Under St. Peter's Colonnade

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.

Under St. Peter's colonnade
Under St. Peter's colonnade
Andrea Tornielli

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.

Photo: nightingaleshiraz

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.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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