Date: Tue 09 Feb 2016

Herbie goes volunteering in Rome: On a mission for compassion and kindness

They are an unlikely combination, but Steven Barnes 37, from Bradford, Mary Stuart-Miller, 55, from Surrey and `Herbie’, head out to Italy and share their experiences with us.

These three Brits are familiar faces on the streets of Rome. Herbie, a modern day version of the famous anthropomorphic VW Beetle, with his distinctive tri-colore stripes and British `BUG’ registration plate, are known to hundreds of homeless and disadvantaged, many of whom use the city’s pavements as a bed, its water fountains to wash in.

Rome, capital of Italy, centre of the Christian world, has a heritage and culture dating back thousands of years. On April 21st 2016 Rome celebrates its 2769th birthday, making it nearly three thousand years since Romulus killed his twin brother and avoided Rome being known as Reme.

Some of Rome’s other statistics are a little less inspiring, including a figure of around 7,000 homeless who sleep in abandoned buildings, beneath marble Bernini columns, in doorways and on the doorstep of the Vatican. The areas around St Peter’s square often resemble an open air hotel.

In response to what they see as a growing, global epidemic, Steve, Mary, Herbie and a team of international, multi-cultural, non-dominational volunteers have formed `Project Rome’. Among other things, the group seeks to address the problem of the invisible thousands who have fallen below the thin line of poverty and homelessness. It is British born Steve and Mary’s passion. When in Rome, they spend every waking minute helping the homeless and those disadvantaged in the city.

Tuesday is Project Rome’s big night, when the group serves two hundred home-cooked meals on the streets, close to a main train and bus terminal at Tiburtina. The group admits that `Tiburtina Tuesday’ attracts some very desperate, hungry people.

Mary said “When we started we were dealing with people who were pushing, shoving, even fighting, in fact almost every week there was a fight. No-one queued and it was hard to hand out hot food with hands grabbing and no order or organisation. These days, after months of arriving religiously in Herbie every week with a car packed with food, clothes, toiletries and shoes, they are much calmer, they know that there will always be enough to go around and the guys even queue up before we arrive. We ensure that they eat first, then we hand out donations of clothes, shoes and toiletries in response to individuals’ requests for specific items. We talk to the guys, we know their names, their shoe sizes, what clothes they have and what we need and then we come back a week later with their individual orders, wrapped in supermarket bags with their names on.”

Mary insists that Project Rome is a concept rather than a charity. A concept to be kind, compassionate and caring to others, particularly those who are disadvantaged. And it’s not just confined to Rome, Project Rome has global ambitions.

She continued “The world has changed a lot. Two decades ago it would have been unthinkable for a man to sleep on the street in Rome. In just 20 years Italy has changed, as have many other western countries. People would no longer think to offer a bed to a friend in need, or even to a brother or a cousin. We frequently talk to guys who have lost contact with their siblings, their children, their parents, or who are embarrassed and can’t let those closest to them know their situation. Somewhere along the way the world has lost the ability to be compassionate. Project Rome is changing this.”

In addition to the weekly food and clothing hand out at Tiburtina bus station, Herbie, Steve and Mary make almost daily trips to an abandoned, damp, former school, just north of the city adjacent to one of its famous ancient roads, Via Salaria. Here, 20 Italians live without electricity, where the atmosphere is so damp that the bedding is wet by 3am, with only cold running water and the only heat is provided by seven gas heaters, bought by Project Rome. Project Rome also keeps them supplied with gas cylinders.

With the help another key member of the team, Ghanean refugee Rockson Adade, Project Rome has furnished the building from donations and provided beds, bedding, chairs, tables, sofas and storage in the former classrooms. One of the recipents of their aid, Roman born Fabrizio, said “9 months ago I was sleeping on cardboard, outdoors on a hard floor. Now, I have a bed, blankets, a roof over my head, I am warm and I regularly eat home-cooked meals.”

Between caring for the `Project Rome 20’ and organising Tiburtina Tuesday, Steve and Mary regularly pack up Herbie with clothing, food, soft drinks and toiletries and drive to areas in Rome close to food hand-out points, to public toilets, places where the homeless can sleep for a few hours undisturbed. And on a Sunday evening, Herbie is once again loaded up with vast pans of meat or chicken stew which is served to a group of homeless who sleep overnight in a freezing cold, historic church, close to the smart Via del Corso shopping street.

Mary added “I insist that we treat those that we help in the same way that we’d treat our own families. That means not compromising on food quality and not handing out anything we wouldn’t give our own children. We were once complimented on the food that we’d served to a white haired, bearded man who had spotted us serving from the back of Herbie outside the church. Between mouthfuls he looked up and asked us why we do it and I replied automatically, `because we can’. And that’s also central to Project Rome, because it doesn’t matter what you do, where you do it or how you do it, as long as you do it.”