Pope Francis converted a nineteenth-century palace in St. Peter’s Square, neighboring the Vatican, into a homeless shelter in the heart of Rome. For the past seven decades, the Palazzo Migliori was the home of the Calasanziane order of religious women. They vacated the building last year, and those in charge of taking the building considered several options, one of the most prominent being turning it into a hotel, which was certain to produce a generous amount of revenue. It was Pope Francis’s intervention that led to the transformation of the palace into a shelter as opposed to transforming it into a hotel for the numerous tourists that flock to the Vatican every year. He chose to turn this beautiful palace into a safe haven for Rome’s poor and homeless, and opened its doors as a shelter in November after renovations. According to NBC News, there are now about fifty homeless men and women who live in the palace alongside volunteers who help them and provide them hot meals.
In inaugurating the palace as a homeless shelter, Pope Francis stressed the importance of beauty in the lives of those struggling with homelessness or poverty. “Beauty heals,” he said at the inauguration. The move has brought Pope Francis much applause, and those now living there also had overwhelmingly positive things to say. “This place feels more like home. I have my own bed, room and bathroom,” Mario Brezza, a man who lives in the new shelter, told NBC News. “It’s so different from the dormitories I have tried until now, where sometimes you feel like an animal in a crowded stable.”
Sharon Christner, a volunteer from Pennsylvania who works in the shelter, applauded Pope Francis’s decision. “Even if they wanted to use it for charity, a lot of people would have rented this place out, make a lot of money and give it to the poor. But what is special about this place is that it’s not about maximizing dollar signs, but giving people a really beautiful place to be, with the idea that beauty heals.”
Carlo Santoro, who works with the association in charge of many of the Vatican’s charitable projects, echoed Christner’s sentiments. “It is a beautiful palace next to St. Peter’s Square and Basilica, and yet it’s home to those who until recently did not have a house to go to,” Santoro said.
Homelessness is one of the most pressing social issues of our time, and for all its grandeur, it is an issue from which Rome is not immune. As such, Pope Francis’s decision to turn an ornate Vatican palace into a homeless shelter deserves considerable praise. Not only is it exceptionally generous and a real, practical solution to combatting homelessness, it also addresses the systemic causes of homelessness. As Christner pointed out, the palace very well could have been converted to a hotel, and the proceeds used to help the poor, but throwing money at people is rarely as effective as hoped. Instead, using the resources at their disposal to actively rehabilitate and help these people get back on their feet shows a very practical side of the Vatican. As Rome continues to struggle with their homelessness crisis, it would do other organizations in the city well to follow the Vatican’s lead.
Italian news outlet La Repubblica estimated that there are about eight thousand people who live on Rome’s streets, with the government only being able to secure shelters and hospitalization for about four to five thousand of those people. Rome’s homelessness crisis reached a peak in the winter of 2018/2019, when at least ten homeless people died on the streets due to freezing temperatures. Rome’s Mayor Virginia Raggi worked toward an ordinance that required the homeless to accept night reception in closed structures maintained by the city if the temperatures dropped significantly. As such, homelessness is not a new problem for Rome. Given that it is a city of great beauty and allure, the true extent of the homelessness crisis in Rome often goes unrealized. Consequently, Pope Francis’s decision to transform a Vatican palace into a homeless shelter comes as a very tangible step forward in comforting the poor and suffering on the Vatican’s doorstep.
Pope Francis’s intervention to turn Palazzo Migliori into a shelter is a tremendous act of humanitarian aid in combatting Rome’s homelessness crisis. In using an elaborate palace for good rather than profit, the Vatican sets a clear example not only in their city but internationally of a practical and effective method of helping the homeless population in a city. As the leader of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis is truly living the values of his faith, and this example of humanity and practicality in the heart of Rome is not inspiring only to the religious. Instead, it may inspire future policy and change for the homeless population the world over in the future.