Homeless in Rome.
April 2nd until April 15th. Rome.
The picture above shows Rome in all it's glory. It's picture perfect. Gorgeous view, the old Roman architecture, the touch of green and the Italian flair. It's all there. But it's only one side of Rome.
I spent two weeks in Rome, allowing me to take some short trips to places nearby (like Naples and Ostia) and go back to the city I had explored before, playing tourist. However, I also got the chance to see a different side of Rome, one that I hadn't seen before.
I've visited Amsterdam countless of times, so I'm no stranger to seeing homeless people on the street or to witness poverty. Rome showed me a different kind of homeless people, though, almost as if they were more homeless than the ones I've seen in Amsterdam. Perhaps it's because even while homeless, the government and the health system in the Netherlands still provide a certain amount of care. And when I thought I had seen poverty, I had of course not seen poverty like here in Rome.
The 21th century is an era marked by one financial crisis following the other. Just the first year of the new millennium and Turkey was suffering through an economical crisis, though Argentina started the new century already in a declared crisis. It seemed like countries were following each other when it came down to financial troubles, until 2009 when the European debt crisis (also referred to as the Eurozone crisis or the European sovereign debt crisis) hit the Eurozone. The crisis, which has more or less officially been said to be over, hit several European countries and almost led to the fall of the European Union. The crisis put pressure on current political systems, governments, the relations between countries both in as out of the European Union, and unemployment rates sky rocketed with over 19 million people unemployed across the Eurozone in 2013, the highest recorded rate. In 2015 that number had decreased, but Eurostat still reports over 17 million people across Europe as unemployed.
Unemployment rates in Italy have been steadily growing since 2010, hitting 13.2% in 2014 before lowering down to 12.7%, even though statistics show that the rates across the Eurozone are declining. At the same time, homelessness numbers increased by 45% in Europe. However, the numbers in Italy tripled during the economical crisis, meaning that 48,000 people in Italy are homeless — 3,276 in Rome alone, earning the city the 16th place on the list of 25 cities with the highest number of homeless. Bear in mind that many immigrants and Italians live in informal settlements and are thus not considered homeless (go here to see another post of mine on such a settlement). At the same time, the risk of poverty and social exclusion has increased by 5% in 5 years and the middle class has reported to be experiencing poverty.
Of the 3,276 homeless people in Rome, 48% live on the street whereas the remaining 52% find shelter in dorms. Almost 60% of people in shelters are immigrants, but shelters also report seeing more and more native Italians. Of those foreign citizens living on the streets, 11.5% is Romanian, 9.1% is from Morocco and 5.7% from Tunisia. The numbers are generated by two studies, carried out in 2014, RaRacCONTAMI 2014, a census carried out by the Rodolfo De Benedetti Foundation and the Bocconi University. The second study was carried about by De Vitiis et al. These studies show that most homeless are men (86.9%), 57.9% are younger than 45, and most of them are forced to live on the streets after losing their jobs and, eventually, losing their homes. Another survey conducted in 2012 showed that only 6.2% of the homeless never had a job — and even while homeless, some still have a job but simply don’t earn enough to pay their rents. Then there are those that had their wages cut so drastically that they couldn’t afford their homes anymore.
The differences among native Italians and immigrants living on the streets is remarkable. While only 9.3% of the immigrants has reported living on the streets for over four years, 24% of the Italians has been homeless for over four years. This corresponds with data from RacCONTAMI 2014, which states that homelessness is more chronic for Italians than for immigrants — 8.2 years against 3.9 years.
Pictured above is my first encounter with a homeless man in Rome. It was my first day of being back in the city, trying to retrace my steps as I had visited the city about seven years prior. My camera was still in my backpack, sitting there safely as I tried to steady myself. I had only been in Rome for three days and things still felt unnatural to me. I was searching for a certain kind of balance, the reasoning part of my mind telling me we were in a different country (No shit, Sherlock) and my heart doubting if it was real — would my life really look like this for the next months? The air was remotely humid, the stones still wet with the early morning rain, the skies clouded but without the doom of more rainfall. The temperature was nice, cool against my skin like a gentle touch. I was glad for the weather as I knew it would get hotter over the next few days. It was a nice day to start exploring the city centre. It was a good day to go down memory lane.
And then I spotted him. He was laying at the top of a flight of stairs, the church on the right. The steps in front of the church doors had already been taken by a homeless woman, and he was asleep in a sleeping bag. At first, I was too afraid to approach him. I took a couple of shots of the woman in front of the doors, pretending to photograph the church, lingering closer to the steps where he was laying. He had woken up and I could feel his eyes trailing me, watching me. It was almost as if he anticipated me to come over. Perhaps he saw me eyeing him every now and again. Perhaps he saw my hesitation, or my aimless wandering.
I’ve been wanting to do more street photography and street portrait photography for several years now, but am constantly held back by my own fears of photographing people in public spaces. I usually shoot them secretly, or use reflections such as mirrors or windows to hide. I recall a number of times that I hid in the shades of alleyways or corners, watching the people pass me by and taking my shots when they did. Very few people noticed me and when they did, I must have come across as some crazy, weird, stalker person could be serial killer. I don’t blame them. That’s how I felt as well — invading their lives and their privacy like an unwanted guest. Thing is, I find that shooting people is strangely intimate, especially when they notice you — definitely when they look at you — and I am still uncomfortable with that intimacy. I don’t want people to notice me (taking pictures), I want them to carry on with their lives, those lives not influenced by the presence of a camera recording their actions or the knowledge that they are being watched, allowing me to capture moments that are as pure as I can see them.
Of course, these are idle thoughts. Arturo Pérez-Reverte briefly discusses it in his book ‘The painter of battles’: a camera holds the ability to change peoples lives for the sake of bringing with it the knowledge that one is being watched, thus reconstructing their behaviour and altering the course of their actions and possibly their lives. But here I am — the girl travelling with her dog, on an adventure of a lifetime, finally having found the courage to do what I’ve wanted to do for years. In my mind, the step of leaving home with packed bag was easier than approaching this homeless man, but I forced myself to go anyway. I know it’s the other way around, or at least I know it should be the other way around, and the knowledge that I was brave enough to leave the comfort of home told me I would be brave enough to advance towards him.
And so I did.
In the little Italian I knew at that point, I said hello to him and he kindly replied. He was rather daft, but friendly nevertheless. Most of the things he said to me, I didn’t understand. But when I raised my camera and smiled, he nodded.
As the days passed, I continued to head out into the city centre and stumble across countless of homeless people. Some I photographed, some I merely smiled at and gave some coins, others started a conversation with me. It surprised me to find out that a lot of homeless people know some English — enough for a short and bracketed conversation anyway. When talking to someone about this later, he responded by saying that a lot of homeless depend on tourists as an income, so I guess it makes sense that they speak some basic English.
Again pictured above, one of the best examples I had that having my dog with me was a good thing when it came down to sparking a conversation. A lot of homeless people have dogs - I am unsure of whether or not these dogs were strays before or if most of them are originally owned by the homeless person - and when seeing me with my blue-eyed border collie, I was almost instantly greeted in a friendly manner. I spotted this man across the road and headed to him straight away. I squatted down next to him after he noticed my dog and smiled at me. By now, I understood more Italian and with a few Italian words I had picked up and some English, we talked for a good fifteen minutes. The man asked me Mays's name and his age and in return told me about his own dog. Again, the man spoke some English. He allowed me to take his picture and I gave him some money - not as a thank you for that would mean that I paid for some sort of service, but as a means to help him out.
While I was in Rome, I quickly realised that I wanted to do a photo series on the homeless people living here. However, there was too much on my to-see list that I didn’t fully commit to this — something I regret once leaving behind Rome. At the same time, I feel like two weeks would have done injustice to this subject anyway. I know that these kind of subjects are sensitive matters and one can’t just wander into this world, expect answers and a story, dusting off and walking away again. Some ‘simple’ research into homelessness and poverty in Rome had me up half the night as I fell from one rabbit hole into the other. Surprisingly, from what I understand, only very little is actually done to help the homeless from the governments side. There is care for them on the streets, supplying them with shelter, safety for the night and food, but it seems like the Italian system is trying to stitch a wound already closed. There is very little done for those living in extreme poverty and the care and the system doesn’t seem to be aiming for prevention of homelessness and the benefit system is poorly developed. The little that’s done for the homeless, can’t be considered as much with the Pope providing barbershops and showers, and the Sant' Egidio community creating a ‘Michelin guide’. Not when people are forced to live on the streets, having little to no money to buy food and with most of them subjected to begging and being dependent on the courtesy and kindness of the people that pass them on the streets — the same people that I’ve seen walking passed them day in day out.
For now, I have a small collection of pictures that I am satisfied and happy with and will leave this story, knowing I've barely scratched the surface and would love to dig in deeper. I've talked to homeless people and taken their pictures, but didn't discuss the growing number of homeless people on the street with many Italians. The few times it was mentioned, like when talking about it with my host, homeless are quite often categorised as immigrants. The financial crisis and the recession are briefly mentioned, but mostly it's "the immigrants that came looking for work". Again, this calls for a more in-depth story. There's more to explore - not just in travels, adventures or countries - but also in people, their stories and the pictures that tell these stories. I hope to be able to return to Italy at some point. When I do, picking this story back up is on top of my to-do list.