I ignored Nico for at least six months. I walked past him like I walked past other homeless people – always with a pang of guilt and pity, but not enough to make me stop. The fact that I walked past him every day on the way to work made me feel more guilty about ignoring him, but also less inclined to stop. Once I acknowledged his existence, I would never be able to go back to ignoring him again.
Having lived in London, Oxford and Rome – all cities with a huge homeless population – I suppose I’d become desensitised. I was so used to seeing people sitting on the pavement that it was easy to walk past, using one of the usual excuses (“I’ll give money to a charity instead”; “I’ll be more generous in the future, when I’m richer”). I would buy the occasional Big Issue and donate to other charitable causes to ease my conscience.
But Nico changed all that. After hurrying past him day after day, trying to ignore the growing sense of guilt as I made my way to Piramide, I suddenly reached a point where I couldn’t ignore him any more. I think it was a combination of two incidents. The first was seeing a young man stop to talk to Nico, and the realisation that it was possible to break this invisible wall. The second was walking towards him and noticing that he was reading something intently. He was hunched over, reading some kind of magazine spread out on the ground. As I got closer, I saw what it was – an empty sticker book. Pages of empty boxes with footballers’ names beneath. The idea of reading an empty sticker book to pass the time was just too tragic. I resolved to talk to him.
Nico’s usual spot lies at the end of via Marmorata. He sits with his back to the wall of the Protestant Cemetery and the Pyramid. He has a little cardboard box in front of him with a few coins, but he never asks for anything. He never looks up. He always seems to be in his own world, gazing at nothing in particular.
“Scusa…” When he realises I’m talking to him he seems startled, almost frightened. What do I want from him? Overcoming social awkwardness and a language barrier – we speak in Italian, which is not his native language either – the conversation is short. I tell him that I want to help him, and that he should feel free to ask me for anything he wants. He thanks me warily, eyes fixed on the ground.
Over the following weeks, as I brought him food and toiletries and asked “Come stai?” he gradually began to open up. Although he never asked for anything, he gratefully accepted anything I gave him. He also complained bitterly about the place where he slept – in front of the post office on the other side of the road – where at least 20 other homeless people slept every night. Nico, himself a Romanian immigrant, complained about the Arabs who smoked and talked, making so much noise that they kept him up all night. Sometimes they stole from him.
In the early stages of my relationship with Nico, I was determined to get him off the streets. Naively optimistic, I thought that if I could get him in touch with the right people, I would be able to get him into a shelter. He didn’t seem to have any addictions or any obvious signs of mental illness, and given his age (60s?) he had a more urgent need for shelter. But every time I mentioned it to him, he just shrugged, and showed no interest in pursuing the subject.
I sent an email to Sant’Egidio, a charity that helps the homeless in Rome. They replied saying that they knew Nico, but that they had never been able to convince him to come to a shelter. He would accept donations of money, food and clothes, but he refused the offer of a bed.
This was something of an eye-opener for me. I had always assumed that any bed was better than the street, and that Nico would have been been eager to accept anything. When he said no (or rather, stared into the middle-distance whenever I brought up the subject), I was finally forced to give up and set more realistic expectations.
If I couldn’t get him off the streets, I could at least help to make his life more bearable. Over the following months Valeriano and I gave him: pizza, sandwiches, cornetti, fruit, chocolate, tissues, toothpaste, cigarettes, painkillers, underwear, shoes, t-shirts, jumpers, a warm winter jacket, a sleeping bag. And a few euros here and there.
Our conversations were always short and a little formulaic, going something like this:
Me: “Ciao! Come stai?”
Nico: -a smile and a shrug, or else the usual complaints about the other homeless people who sleep in front of the post office-
Me: “I brought you some pizza/bread/fruit. Is there anything else I can get for you?”
Nico: -says no, or mentions that he could do with a new pair of shoes, but only if they’re second-hand of course-
Me: “Okay, I’ll see what I can do. Anyway, I’ve got to dash…”
Nico: “Buon lavoro, signora. Arriverderci…”
One day, something changed, and no one was allowed to sleep in front of the post office any more. It turned out to be something of a blessing for Nico, who found a new place to sleep – in front of a restaurant on Viale della Piramide Cestia – where he was no longer disturbed by other people. His mood improved, and his only complaints were about how the bench was hard on his back, or how it had rained heavily the other night. He seemed as happy as he could reasonably be expected to be.
But then he disappeared. For a while there was no sign of him at all, and Valeriano jokingly tried to reassure me that he was probably on holiday (“maybe the Maldives”). Then Nico reappeared under the post office arcade, far away from the stream of people on the opposite side of the road who might occasionally stop to give him money. Then he disappeared again.
On 22 December, the day I flew back to London for Christmas, I decided to look for him. I hadn’t talked to him for at least a couple of weeks, and as I’d ended up with an extra Panettone, I thought I should make an effort to find him, see how he was, and give him the cake and some oranges.
There was no sign of him by the cemetery wall, or anywhere near the post office. The only other place I could think of was the place where he’d told me slept, on Viale della Piramide Cestia. And that’s where I found him, curled up on the ground while two women swept up the leaves around him.
He looked terrible. Emaciated, barely conscious. I noticed that among his possessions was an un-opened Pandoro – I wasn’t the only person who’d thought to give him a Christmas gift.
He didn’t really seem to register my presence, so I spoke to the women who were sweeping leaves. They lived locally and seemed to know him well. “He’s not eating,” said one, “We brought him some chicken but he won’t eat anything. There’s not much we can do.” Alarmed by his state of health, I asked if we should call someone.
“He doesn’t have any family. He had a brother – they had a business together, but it failed, and they fell out, and now he has no one. He won’t go into a shelter. If it gets bad he’ll have to go into hospital again, like he did last year, but afterwards he’ll be out here again.”
The night before had been the coldest night of the year, and I couldn’t stand the thought of him spending another night on the streets when he was in such a bad state. I put the Panettone and the oranges next to his belongings and bent down to say goodbye, not sure if he even knew who I was. He raised his palm, as if to wave, and then took my hand and kissed it, tears in his eyes.
When I walked away, I was crying too. The situation seemed hopeless, but I couldn’t leave Rome without at least trying to get him help. Valeriano and I tried a few numbers until we found an organisation that checked up on homeless people during the winter. We told them where Nico was, and a couple of hours they called back.
“He doesn’t need to go into hospital yet. There’s not much we can do for him. He’s an alcoholic, you know.”
I didn’t know. Having never seen him drunk, drinking, or with a bottle of alcohol beside him, it had never occurred to me that he might be an alcoholic. Suddenly, his refusal to go into a shelter made more sense.
“We’ll check up on him again tonight,” said the person on the phone.
There will be no happy ending for Nico. A year ago, I naively thought – hoped – that with a bit of help he could get off the streets. Now, I know that the best he can hope for is to not suffer too much in the remaining months or years of his life, and that when he does die, it will be in a hospital bed and not on the pavement.
When I think about Nico, I also think about all the other homeless people that we ignore every day. People who are less approachable, because they’re mentally ill or addicts, or because they don’t look sweet and non-threatening like Nico. People who hide away in parks or under bridges, rather than sitting on the busy street that leads to the metro station.
You can’t always save someone, no matter how good your intentions are. But you can make a difference. You can choose to acknowledge a homeless person as a human being, to ask how they are, to buy them a cup of coffee or a sandwich. Talk to them.
The easiest option is to walk past, and pretend that it’s not your problem. But try not walking past, for a change. Stop, talk to him, and see what happens.
Project Rome – their website is currently down, but check out their Facebook page. Run by British expat Mary Stuart-Miller, Project Rome distributes food, clothes and sleeping bags to the homeless in Rome, and organises “Tiburtina Tuesday” – a weekly event near Tiburtina station where volunteers provide home-cooked meals.
Sant’Egidio – this charity offers food, shelter and other services for the homeless community in Rome.
If you see a vulnerable homeless person in Rome during the winter months you can call 800440022