Heroine for the Homeless

Mary Stuart-Miller was one of The Guardian’s  8  ‘No Fame, No Fuss’ heroes of 2016. Here she writes about how being over 50 changed her life

I rarely even think of my age. I certainly have more energy than in my thirties, and two decades later I am competent, capable, knowledgeable and nothing fazes me. 
My by-word is `just do it’, if I want to paint I paint. When I wanted to take food out onto the streets of Rome for homeless men, I just did it. I am not the kind to climb a mountain or run a marathon, then I do feel my age, but excepting extreme physical sport, I’m up for most other challenges.

It doesn’t matter what you do, where you do it as long as you do it.

I’m standing beside the driver at the front of a coach, 10 minutes from Rome’s St. Peter’s Square, speaking Italian into a microphone.  Thirty Italian employees of the Crowne Plaza Rome – St. Peter’s are listening to my words. I’m explaining what they should expect when they step out at Rome’s second largest train station, Tiburtina. I am not a tour guide and they are not tourists. Forty minutes later we serve a 3-course sit-down meal prepared by the hotel’s chefs on the streets of Rome. 150 homeless men and women sit down on the hotels chairs, at beautifully laid tables for ten, eating off china plates, using metal cutlery and drinking soft drinks from glasses. It’s a bizarre and moving sight.

Three years ago I was 52, I couldn’t speak a word of Italian. I had brought up a wonderful family single handed, in a big family house in West Sussex. I had never lived overseas and I never intended to. A holiday on one of Star Clippers’ tall ships, changed my life. I met an Italian man and we fell in love. After a year or so of to-ing and fro-ing between the UK and Italy it was make or break. Either break, or spend a significant amount of time in Rome.

I came to Rome for one man, but I now embrace and kiss hundreds. Many of them hold me, look me in the eye and say “Ti voglio bene”, I love you. Having become so fond of so many, it is very hard to leave them on the streets after our weekly meet-ups at train stations, in piazzas and outside hospitals, knowing they will sleep on cardboard, with concrete for a bed. Knowing too that I’m probably the only woman who regularly hugs these homeless men and hold their hands, often grimy from the street, beards prickly.

The original Italian boyfriend was as easy to be with as nailing jelly to a wall. Two years after we met, I turned my attention to things more worthwhile. I spent long weekends cooking, serving and clothing refugees in Rome. I helped hand out sandwiches and drinks to the city’s own homeless at Tiburtina, the same station I’d arrived at to meet the elusive Italian immediately after the cruise.

The first evening that I spent handing out sandwiches with a church charity left me feeling “I could do better.” Better in the sense that I can cook, I like to share food. It was no trouble to bring 30 individual boxes of risotto the following week. 30 became 230 packed up hot meals within a few months. I started bringing shoes (often new) and clothes `to order’, for homeless men and women who I was soon on first name terms with.

As the numbers grew from the initial 20 or so to upwards of 150, out of the blue one Monday the church charity organiser asked me to stop bringing clothes, shoes and food. My grasp of Italian wasn’t great at that point, but I got his drift. I was stealing their thunder, raining on their parade.

Project Rome was created within days of turning up one last time to be surrounded by 80 desperate men. Within minutes Police, Army and Caribinieri arrived, tensions heightened, fights broke out. I doubt my suspicions that the charity called them to contribute to the mayhem and my unease will ever be proven. That night, for the last time alone, I served my food. I posted on Facebook in various ex-pat groups, explaining my work, and I now have over fifty volunteers, including 38 year old Steven Barnes from Bradford, who is my right hand man in the project and the only person who is as passionate about it as I am.

The team Project Rome

Exactly one year later, Steve and I watched 150 homeless people sit down to dine, served by the hotel staff. Earlier the same week we’d opened our first exhibition, `Art from the Heart’ to demonstrate that art knows no social or economic boundaries; we’re all the same blood, we all have one heart. That night, I sold my first painting, a large acrylic of Rome’s rooftops, for 800 euros. The money goes straight into funding Project Rome.

Two months ago we rented a large villa to the north of Rome, where up to four homeless men at a time can sleep in a separate apartment. Steve, a trained chef, has taught many of them how to prep and cook for up to 200 people. They come to shower, or to sleep for a night or two, to restore their energy, to get a taste of what it’s like to live in a house. They help us at our weekly `Tiburtina Tuesday’ food hand out, serving food, controlling the queue, dishing out serviettes, putting up tables, clearing up afterwards.

We recently found accommodation for two of our regular men after they had spent 2 months in the apartment. They are now caretaking for six holiday apartments in Umbria. They have six months grace at least with accommodation, food and utilities paid for. They can draw a line under the past, the years sleeping out on the street, and restart their lives. We are results driven, but in a country where social security is limited, sympathy for those who live on the streets is even more limited, we face an uphill task.

Despite our very close contact with the homeless in Rome, Project Rome is not a `homeless charity’. It is a concept to inspire society to show kindness and compassion, especially to those most disadvantaged and in need. In our case, a kind word, remembering a man’s name, his shoe size, or giving him a hug, or shaving his beard or cutting his hair, finding him a new jacket or a pair of shoes that fit properly from among our donations is our way of demonstrating what we mean, living out our ethos.

We are two Brits in Rome that have taken the city by storm, because we also just simply “do it”. We don’t wait for bureaucracy and the only rule we have is never to give money. A few coins will not get a man back on his feet, but belief in him, sharing kindness and compassion might do.

In the past year, I’ve driven our little red and white van up the Via della Conciliazione and stopped right in front of the Pope’s home. Just a few yards from St. Peter’s square  we put up our folding tables in the street, hauled the huge saucepans out and served over fifty men with our signature dish of ten fresh vegetables cooked into a stew with meat or chicken, accompanied by rice and bread.

We supported 20 Italians living in an abandoned school without electricity or hot water for 8 months, bringing dinner up to five times a week, getting them all off the concrete floor and into proper beds, furnishing the building with enough chairs to seat around a large, central dining table. At Christmas we served Christmas Eve dinner within the pitch black building, lit only by candles, brought games and a battery operated radio, presents for everyone, plus a few extra, and a Christmas tree. One of the men, a fifty year old former hospital cleaner said “You treat me better than my own mother.”

We’ve driven through the streets of Rome in the cold and sometimes rain, spotting homeless struggling to get through the night. We stop, we never wake a homeless man, but we ask those who stir if they’d like a hot meal, or a blanket, or any of the toiletries we carry with us.

We’ve presented the concept of Project Rome to students at International schools in Rome, to Universities, companies and associations, always communicating the same message of compassion and kindness. As we tell them, it doesn’t matter what you do, where you do it as long as you do it.

In April, we visited Barcelona. Working in complete accord, as we so often do, we stopped by a bundle of blankets on the streets of Las Ramblas. After buying the occupant, an Italian, named Pepe, a coffee, we ended up him back to his family in northern Italy, by bus, after an overnight sleep in a bed and the chance to smarten up for his mum.

Our work has been featured in the Italian media, we’re something of local heroes here, and both Steve and I were recently asked for our opinions as to whether the `new Pope’ and the Vatican are doing enough to help the homeless and disadvantaged in Rome. The piece appeared in USA today and I’m now waiting for the concrete boots to arrive.

We support all charitable actions, and believe that charities worldwide are working hard, many volunteers are doing a wonderful job turning out week after week, but Western society as a whole needs a big injection of passion, compassion, and kindness to really bring results. We are not just ticking boxes, we can’t achieve sustainable results by simply feeding bodies, we need to fuel the soul. Somewhere along the line, our obsessions with what to watch, buy, drive or enjoy next, seem to be at the cost of remembering how to look after each other. Steve calls it the “Cup of sugar syndrome”, when you could knock on your neighbour’s door and ask for a cup of sugar, or buy a stranger a coffee.

Considering what I didn’t know at 52 years old, what I didn’t know a year ago at 55 years old, I cannot begin to imagine what I will be doing and achieving at 57 years old. I fulfilled my ambition to exhibit my paintings earlier this week. My ambition now is to create Project HOME. We aim to open Rome’s first drop-in centre where men and women who are living without shelter can come in at least once a week, use showers, washing machines, take their boots off and relax in front of the TV, read a book, play music, eat and drink, use laptops and the internet, choose replacement clothes and shoes, and be just like us, just for a few hours a week at least.

The building and the infrastructure will need sustainable funding but it will be staffed by homeless men and women, who want to work, want to be recognised and want to get back on their feet. I couldn’t be prouder than I am that two Brits in Rome are making such a difference in a city that is at the heart of world culture, history and even religion. And it all happened by chance, after a meeting on a ship started a journey that I could never have imagined. We’re now charting a course that we hope will inspire millions to turn back the clock and revert to the Cup of Sugar days when we helped each other.

Mary Stuart-Miller portrait