It was the grand reputation of Bologna that led Romania native Roxana Vasile to travel here, 679 miles from home. Victim of the Romanian foster care system, she was searching for a better life, away from poverty, and from long days of low-paid work.  

“I don’t talk with my family any more. We fought because I was working illegally, and we had no money,” she said in an interview at the Centro Beltrame, Bologna’s largest shelter for homeless people.

“Some fellow young friends of mine told me to go to Italy; they said there were jobs there for us, and that we’d be working in houses for people.”  

But when Vasile and five of her friends arrived, on a trip paid for by their acquaintances, she discovered that she was expected to work as a prostitute.  

Jobless and in an unfamiliar country, Vasile escaped prostitution, but not the fact of being an illegal migrant in Italy. After three years of living on the streets, she fell in love with and became pregnant by an illegal, homeless Romanian migrant. Since she was pregnant, she was allowed into a shelter, and was given a temporary Italian ID, due to the obesity that resulted from her pregnancy. Yet, as she was homeless, her three month-old baby was taken away, and given up for adoption.

It was when she arrived at the Centro Beltrame in 2015 that Vasile received the help she needed.  “This place gave me the peace of mind to dismiss everything around me, to just carry on in life,” she recalled fondly.  

Nearly 51,000 people were recorded as homeless in Italy in 2015, up from about 40,600 in 2011, according to a report by the Italian statistics agency Istat. Nearly 60 percent were foreign born. But, in a country still reeling from the Eurozone financial crisis that began in 2009, the others are native Italians, left homeless by unemployment, or by drug or mental health struggles. Some are also pensioners, whose income is too small to sustain them.  Nearly 86 percent of all people in Italy recorded as homeless were men, and nearly a quarter of all homeless people were over age 54, according to Istat.

Migration and economic crisis are driving more people into the streets  

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An Italian Fallen on Hard Times

Marco Bianchi, a native of the nearby city of Faenza, arrived at Centro Beltrame in August 2016, after living under the bridges in Bologna for a year. “Though I’m grateful the facility welcomed me, I would rather be employed, have my own apartment, and be independent,” he said.

After becoming addicted to drugs as a young adult, Bianchi found himself bankrupt, jobless, and homeless. Five years later, Bianchi is no longer is an addict. But  he finds himself stuck in his current situation.

“I want to keep a positive attitude, because I don’t want the cycle to repeat itself,” he said. "If you stay with the mindset that you are here, and that you have a place to stay, you will not do enough to reclaim your life. You’ll just sit here and be taken care of and not want to go back to society.” Bianchi stressed.

Though grateful for the assistance they’ve had in Centro Beltrame, both Bianchi and Vasile agree.

“Our life is like a ladder but we’re on level 1. We need to get back to the base in order to climb up,” said Bianchi. “We have mixed feelings about this place, because on one side, we are thankful for being here, because if not we’d be living in the street. But at the same time, how long can we hold on until we lose hope?”

Centro Beltrame head coordinator Anna Nicolini hopes to position the shelter as a sanctuary -- home to ordinary, not “different” people.

“A homeless person is a real person, so real that it might be you,” she said. “It might be me. Tomorrow, I might find myself homeless because this phenomenon happens constantly, and it happens in such a way that you might find yourself in this situation. When you think of this fact it changes your perspective.”

With the idea of promoting inclusiveness, the center has changed under Nicolini’s directorship.

“Before I came here, this place was closed to the outside,” Nicolini said. “The gates weren’t open. The doors weren’t open. This was like prison.”  

Connecting Shelter and Neighborhood

Nicolini worked to make the center more welcoming to people of all backgrounds, including those with drug, social, and health issues.  The center provides each guest with the essentials for survival, such as a room, hygiene products and meals. There are also a popular gym and multipurpose room, and lounges on both floors.

Centro Beltrame has now evolved into an empowering and progressive environment for guests.

“Our mission is to give back some independence and capacity to those that lost everything,” said Alessandro Tolomelli, a professor at Bologna University with a strong passion for helping those who live in his neighborhood.  

The center uses “social street” as a way to connect the neighborhood through social networks. People are encouraged to discuss projects they would like to pursue, and to make connections with those with the same interests. This phenomenon originated in Bologna, and now has been adopted by other Italian cities. This approach is meant to help those living in the community, homeless or not, meet and work on neighborhood projects together, ranging from planting community gardens to creating artwork to showcasing the history of the center.

“We want to empower the community by starting with those at the bottom, but also by helping the others understand that we all live together, and should get along,” Tolomelli said.

By encouraging interaction, those left with nothing have things to look forward to every day. Centro Beltrame is meant to be.”                    

not just a place to stay, but a place filled with kindness, empowerment and encouragement. “I would like this place to become an experimental school of peace,” Nicolini said.

“To find a way to work out conflict in-house, but to deal with them and find solutions. Sort of like an experimental lab.

Bologna's homeless are both Italian and foreign-born. Both because of the arriving foreign migrant population, and an economic crisis that has deeply destabilized Italy, the homeless population nationally is rising. Photo by Marco Monetti

Head coordinator Anna Nicolini sees the homeless shelter Centro Beltrame as a sanctuary for ordinary people who have fallen on hard times. "A homeless person is a real person -- so real that it might be you," she said.  

People aged 54 and over comprise some one quarter of the Italian homeless population. This man's sign says: "I'm too old to work, but too young for a pension. May God bless you." Photo by Norma Pasquale.

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