As It Happens

The Pope turned a luxurious 19th-century Vatican palace into a homeless shelter

For luxury accommodation in Rome, Palazzo Migliori has got it all — plenty of room, a great location, rooms with a view. And now, thanks to Pope Francis, the 19th-century building is being used to feed and house the homeless.

Shelter director Carlo Santoro says the beauty of the palace is healing for the residents

Pope Frances, centre, has dinner at the Palazzo Migliori, which has been converted into a homeless shelter. (Sant'Egidio Community)


For luxury accommodation in Rome, Palazzo Migliori has got it all. 

The four-storey building has 16 bedrooms, 13 bathrooms and a stunning view overlooking St. Peter's Square in the Vatican. It's also literally a palace — with a name that translates to "Palace of the Best."

And now, thanks to Pope Francis, the 19th-century building is being used to feed and house the homeless.

"Probably many, many eyes just looked at this place for just forming it into a hotel, a very expensive hotel. Whereas the Pope decided to make something for the poor," Carlo Santoro, the new shelter's director, told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

"The Pope wants to give some very important and precise and visible signs ... to say that the poor are just in the very centre of the church."

'Beauty heals'

Built in the early 1800s, the Palazzo Migliori was the longtime headquarters of the all-female Calasanziane religious order, which used the building to house single mothers.

The order relocated last year, and the palace has stood vacant while undergoing renovations. 

The recently renovated 19th-century Vatican building's name translates to 'Palace of the Best.' (Palazzo Migliori)

Santoro says he's glad the Vatican decided to turn it into a shelter rather than selling the building and using the profits to help the poor. 

"It reminds me [of] what the Pope said to us when he came. And he said the beauty heals," he said.

"Probably many people thought that it's a waste, that is to say that it's too much for the poor ... but we think that it is a good paradox that it is very beautiful. And the beauty heals. It's true."

Santoro is a member of the Sant'Egidio Community, a Catholic association that runs several charitable projects connected to the Vatican, and has been working with the homeless of St. Peter's Square for years. 

"We have been friends with the homeless of St. Peter's Square for a long time," he said. "That's important, because they know us."

At the moment, he says there are about 30 people staying in the palace, two or three to a room. The spaciousness, he says, has allowed them to offer housing to those who are usually wary of shelters. 

Every evening, the residents of the Palazzo Migliori homeless shelter eat dinner together. (Sant'Egidio Community)

"The homeless don't like to be in very big rooms with a huge number of other guests. So this permitted ourselves so to recuperate some of them who [otherwise] wouldn't come," he said.

He says the splendour of the building has been having a positive effect on people's mental health, "but, of course, the beauty of the palace is not enough."

A place to 'restart'

That's why he says the shelter staff work hard to create a welcoming climate and cater to the residents' individual needs. 

They also have doctors on hand who regularly check on the guests. 

"It's very hard for them to be visited in the hospitals or in the public health centres," Santoro said. "So it's important if someone takes care of them."

Every evening, he said, the residents all gather together to share a big meal. Wednesday's menu included meatballs, soup, fruit and veggies.

Santoro says staff are taking a one-on-one approach to working with the residents, helping them get what they need to get back on their own feet.

Several have already shown progress by finding jobs or moving out into their own homes, he said. 

"The people know that from the very beginning that this place is ... a temporary accommodation," Santoro said. 

"We know quite well that this place can be a good point of reference for people who are totally rootless ... and they can restart from here a new life."

Written by Sheena Goodyear and Chris Harbord. Interview produced by Chris Harbord. 


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