Hot Showers for the Homeless, Courtesy of St. Peter

It's been many years since I was in Rome, but I remember my first impression of the city: it's extremely beautiful, and it smells like poop. Part of that smell comes because Italians tend to have dogs, rather than children. And part of the smell comes because, at least when I was there, public bathrooms are few and far between, and they are coin operated. The phrase "eternal city" takes on a whole new meaning when you are penniless, on foot, and have nowhere to go for hour upon hour.

For a college sophomore spending a semester abroad, this discomfort had its exotic charm. For the thousands of homeless men and women who live in Rome, having nowhere to relieve themselves -- and nowhere to shower after a day in city of grit and Mediterranean sunshine-- is a daily reality which means nothing but more humiliation.

According to the Catholic Herald UK, Konrad Krajewski, the archbishop in charge of dispensing charity from the Vatican, told Vatican Insider that 

he was talking to a homeless man near the Vatican last year and discovered it was the man’s 50th birthday. He invited the man to a restaurant for dinner, but the man declined, saying a restaurant would not let him in because of his odour.

And so began plans whose first phase was completed on February 6th: the public bathrooms just off St. Peter's Square are now equipped with a bank of free hot showers for the homeless, with free haircuts once a week. 

“Our pilgrims without a home will receive, along with a shower, a complete change of underwear and a kit with a towel, soap, toothpaste, razor, shaving cream and deodorant, according to different individual needs,” the Vatican said in a communiqué.

The facility and supplies will be funded with private donations and through the sale of parchments certifying papal blessings. The haircuts will be provided by barbers and barbering students who donate their services. The facility will also dispense to the homeless some of the hundreds of umbrellas left behind by tourists in this season of weeks upon weeks of rain.  

Archbishop Krajewski said to the news agency ANSA:

“When a person has no means of washing themselves, they are rejected by society, and we all know a homeless person cannot enter a public establishment such as a bar or a restaurant and ask to use the bathroom because they are told to go away."

The facility will only be open on days when large crowds are not expected at the Vatican, such as during Papal audiences. 

 This effort is, according the Catholic Herald UK, "part of a larger initiative, in partnership with local parishes, to install similar amenities throughout the city in areas where there are soup kitchens and large numbers of homeless people." There are many other Catholic charitable organizations around the city, mostly offering food. There are a few free showers, but most are not open right now.

Perhaps the Vatican chose to open this facility so close to St. Peter's Square as a way to raise the profile of the project, to attract more donors -- and to signal to the world that the Church takes seriously the dignity of all pilgrims who make their way to the bosom of the Church.