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Vatican Turns 19th Century Palace Into A Homeless Shelter

NOEL KING, HOST:

In Rome, just behind St. Peter's Square, there's a palace that the Vatican owns. Some church officials wanted to turn it into a money-making enterprise. But as NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports, Pope Francis had other ideas.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELLS RINGING)

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: The bells of St. Peter's Basilica ring out on a chilly evening. A few yards from the Renaissance colonnade designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, a group of people wait to enter a building. One of them is Livia, an Italian woman in her 60s.

LIVIA: (Speaking Italian).

POGGIOLI: She comes for dinner and stays through breakfast the next morning. After sleeping on the streets for months, since early December, Livia has been coming to what's become known as the Palace of the Poor, and her life has radically changed.

LIVIA: (Speaking Italian).

POGGIOLI: She now takes wonderful walks, visits lots of churches and then goes to a library because she loves to read.

(CROSSTALK)

POGGIOLI: Visiting journalists are welcomed by volunteers from the Sant'Egidio Community, an Italian lay Catholic association that carries out charitable projects. Director Carlo Santoro gives a tour.

CARLO SANTORO: (Speaking Italian).

POGGIOLI: Palazzo Migliori, he explains, was donated to the Vatican in 1930. For 70 years, an order of nuns ran it as a home for single mothers. They've since relocated. Some Vatican officials then proposed to turn this prime real estate into a luxury hotel.

SANTORO: (Speaking Italian).

POGGIOLI: But Santoro says the pope ordered that it become a home for those Francis says society treats as rejects, victims of today's throwaway culture.

SANTORO: Because every person, every human being, has the right to be respected, the right to have a good life, a good health and a house, too. So we feel like they're family. They've been missing for a long time.

POGGIOLI: The carved wooden ceilings, frescoed walls and tiled floors are evidence of the building's aristocratic origins. Up to 50 people can be housed in 16 rooms. There are 13 new bathrooms, each equipped with a shower. The palace also provides medical assistance and psychological counseling for alcoholism. Guests won't give their last names and are reticent to explain why they ended up homeless. Fragments of conversations provide glimpses of pain and grief, lost jobs, marriage breakups or mental issues. What they all now share is some hope for the future. Silvano, a Romanian, has been in Italy for 15 years. For the last eight, he spent damp, cold nights under the Bernini colonnade that he now gazes at from his warm and cozy bedroom.

SILVANO: (Through interpreter) If you sleep on the ground covered in cardboard and have to wake up at 5 a.m. before the police come to shove you away, and then you find a place like this where you have breakfast, showers, a bed and dinner, what more could you want?

POGGIOLI: In November, the pope came to inaugurate the Palace of the Poor, and Director Santoro remembers what Francis said as he admired its artistic interior.

SANTORO: Beauty heals. That is to say that the beauty of this house is very useful for them just to recuperate.

POGGIOLI: Since this beautiful sanctuary opened three months ago, Santoro says, several guests have found regular jobs, and two have rejoined their families in northern Italy. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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