Reportage. A group of young political activists brought cots and mattresses into a crumbling church that had been neglected for years. Someone called the police, but they didn’t intervene. “Just since the beginning of 2018, five homeless people died of cold in Italy,” an organizer said.

Activists break into abandoned church, convert it into homeless shelter

On Friday, at the break of dawn, they entered the church of Sant’Antonio in the Tarsia neighborhood—it had been abandoned for years—and, under the curious gaze of the whole neighborhood, began to bring in cots and mattresses.

The young workers were from Je so’ pazzo (“I am crazy” in Neapolitan), a community organization also known as “Ex OPG” after they occupied an abandoned OPG—criminal mental hospital—in Naples and turned it into a community space. They are also running in the upcoming elections as Potere al popolo! (“Power to the people!”).

During their morning cleanup last week, they set up an area along the nave of the church to accommodate at least 20 homeless people. This is one of the activities that Ex OPG is pursuing together with the Rete di Solidarietà popolare (“Network of Popular Solidarity”), which counts among its members Don Franco Esposito, the chaplain of Poggioreale prison, and Napoli insieme (“Naples together”), an organization that distributes meals to the homeless.

“We went and asked the municipality and the Curia [Catholic Church authorities] to allow us to manage an abandoned space, at our expense, to shelter those who do not have a home during the winter months,“ says Viola Carofalo, the political leader of Potere al popolo! “But no one even answered us, so we decided to go it alone. Just since the beginning of 2018, five homeless people died of cold in Italy. Eight died last year.

“The Curia of Naples is the largest property owner in the city. Add to that the buildings belonging to around 150 archconfraternities, and those belonging to the parishes. And I haven’t even mentioned the possessions of individual religious orders.”

The police showed up in the morning but did not intervene, as they were not able to contact the property owners to determine if it would be necessary to evict the occupiers.

The 16th century building has been left completely unmaintained by the confraternity of the Redemptorists, the last owners of the historical complex in the residential heart of Naples. The neighborhood said they had tried to sell the complex—a former convent with a view to Vomero hill—to private individuals. They even made an opening in the perimeter walls to allow cars to access the site. On the first floor, one can still see the old vaulted ceilings, the balustrade made of carved trachytic rock and the inner courtyard, abandoned to total decay. On the top two floors, a recent renovation has erased all traces of the Baroque architecture, leaving only plain walls with ugly flowery tiles and rusted metal inlays.

“Tonight we will bring the meals cooked at the former OPG,” Viola adds, “and we will try to involve the neighborhood in activities for the community, and we will also try to contact the Suor Orsola Benincasa University of Naples, which has a department for cultural heritage sciences, in order to try to prevent the structure from decaying even further.”

Chiara Capretti, a candidate for Potere a Popolo! and an activist for Je so’ pazzo, sees occupying the church as a response to the Minniti-Orlando decree. “We are here to turn the concept of ‘decorum’ on its head, which is now used by mayors to issue ‘municipal decrees’ to relegate to the suburbs those who live in desperate conditions and in extreme poverty,” she said, referring to Italian laws ostensibly to maintain public order but which in effect criminalize poverty. “Solidarity is our ‘decorum.’

“The PD [Democratic Party] government gave them the opportunity, but it was the municipalities themselves which have rushed to set up squads to enforce this decree—from the 5 Star Movement people in Turin and Rome, to Como, Bologna and Milan. For tomorrow we have organized initiatives in many cities: we will be engaged in activities such as caring for public green areas and removing anti-homeless metal bars from benches.”

In the old pews of the church, we met the historian Giuseppe Aragno, who is also a candidate for PAP. “The law signed by [Interior Minister Marco] Minniti and [Justice Minister Andrea] Orlando has a precedent: the fascist decree on ‘urban decorum’ from 1934, which is obviously similar, starting with the name itself. Those unemployed during that time undermined the notion of order and the image of the fascist cities, so they had to be pushed out, back to the countryside where they came from.

“It is terrible that the people coming from a PCI [Italian Communist Party] background are now reusing the legal instruments of the fascist period,” Aragno said. “The initiative in the Tarsia neighborhood is one way to give a political response to the aberrations of the ruling classes, who have all succumbed to neoliberalism.“

Subscribe to our newsletter

Your weekly briefing of progressive news.

You have Successfully Subscribed!