VATICAN CITY — It is nearly 8 p.m. on a Tuesday in early March, and the Vatican is locked up for the night. A few stray tourists pose for pictures in front of the glistening basilica of St. Peter, and cassock-wearing clergy skim the perimeter of the square on their way home to dinner. In the shadows of the famous colonnade and extending to the foot of the grand boulevard known as the Via Conciliazione, dozens of men and a few women settle in for the night in Vatican-issued sleeping bags. They are the welcomed guests of Pope Francis, though not everyone in the neighborhood appreciates their presence. Joey, a Romanian who used to bed down in Rome’s squalid Termini train station, moved to St. Peter’s in late February. “We are all moving here,” he told The Daily Beast. “Everyone else spits on the homeless. But not here.”
By some estimates, the number of homeless people now camping out near St. Peter’s Square has doubled in the last six months, since the pope’s vow to return dignity to those suffering the humiliation of extreme poverty. Rome city officials don’t keep solid numbers on homeless people, though local charities put the number at about 3,275. A nighttime police officer who guards the perimeter of St. Peter’s Square told The Daily Beast that the numbers of homeless around Vatican City are much higher than he had ever seen in his 10 years on the job, estimating them at more than 1,000 in the immediate area. “We are told to leave them in peace,” he said. “They don’t cause any trouble, and in the morning they spread out. They are really only here in high numbers at night.”
Francis began his pontificate with a vow to turn the Catholic Church into a church for the poor. One of his first gestures after he was elected in 2013 was to invite four homeless men to celebrate his 77th birthday at the hotel where he lives inside the Vatican’s hallowed walls. This year he again invited a handful of homeless to join him for his birthday lunch. Then he ordered his alms giver to hand out hundreds of sleeping bags to those sleeping on the street.
Under Francis, the Vatican also has installed showers near the public bathrooms under the colonnade, and every Monday, local volunteer barbers offer free haircuts once the homeless men and women have taken showers. There are laundry services and a clothes bank where those in need can get clean clothes. The only day the showers aren’t available is Wednesday, when the pope’s general audience attracts hundreds of thousands of pilgrims. On those days, many homeless people are tasked with handing out prayer books.
Last week, the pope approved the burial of Willy, an 80-year-old German homeless man who was a well-known parishioner in the church of Santa Anna on the perimeter of Vatican City, in the sacred cemetery inside Vatican City. Willy’s lifeless body was found in late December and kept in a local morgue until early February, when someone made the connection that Willy no longer came to Mass. The pope was apparently so touched by the story that he insisted the homeless man be buried near the last home he knew. “He attended 7 o’clock Mass every day for more than 25 years,” Father Bruno Silvestrini, the priest of Santa Anna, told Vatican Radio. “He was a rich person of great faith.”
The generosity of the pope may be well received by those in need, but it is not without complications. Store owners along the Via Conciliazione have complained that the number of homeless people and beggars detracts from business and that every morning they have to forcibly remove those in the papal sleeping bags from their storefront steps. A woman at a religious trinket shop who asked that she not be named lest she upset the pope said his kindness was now a magnet attracting the city’s poorest people. “I don’t want to group homeless people with pickpockets and thieves, but we have also seen an increase in petty crime here since the homeless moved in,” she said. “There has to be a balance in finding the peace between those of us who pay a lot of rent to run our businesses here and those who cash in for free.”
There is also a logistical issue with the increase in street people. The city’s charities and soup kitchens do a fine job feeding the poor, but there are very few public toilets for the homeless to use—and a scant few that are open overnight—which means that full corridors of side streets along the flanks of Vatican City are littered with human feces and drenched in urine. Street sweepers have acknowledged that they now spray down full sections of the areas around St. Peter’s Square every morning before the tourists arrive.
But the upside of Francis’s generosity far outweighs the negative, and even the crew of James Bond’s new movie, Spectre, joined in this week. While shooting an overnight car chase between Bond’s Aston Martin and a flashy Jaguar, presumably driven by Bond’s enemy in the film, along the Via Conciliazione, the crew distributed hot meals to the hundreds of homeless people who were camped in the middle of their movie set. One crew member told Il Messaggero newspaper that it was to pay the homeless back for the inconvenience of shooting while they were trying to sleep.