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Vatican unveils free showers and haircuts for the homeless

A view of the washing facilities just off St Peter's Square (AP Photo/L'Osservatore Romano, pool)

The Vatican is preparing to offer hot showers, soapy shaves and haircuts free to those it calls “our homeless pilgrims”.

Thanks to charitable contributions from Pope Francis and private donors, the Vatican has finished remodelling and expanding a public washing area a few steps from Bernini’s Colonnade, surrounding St Peter’s Square.

The Vatican announced on February 6 that the construction work was finished and that the updated bathrooms now include three showers and a barber’s chair.

Free haircuts will be offered every Monday by volunteer barbers and students graduating from a hairdressing school. Most barbershops and hair salons are closed on Mondays in Italy, making it the one day of the week hairstylists are easily available to volunteer their services.

The showers will be open every day except Wednesdays – general audience day – and days when other large events are planned in St Peter’s Square or the basilica, the Vatican said.

“Our pilgrims without a home will receive, along with a shower, a complete change of underwear and a kit with a towel, soap, toothpaste, razor, shaving cream and deodorant, according to different individual needs,” the Vatican said in a communiqué.

While most of the supplies are donated by businesses and individuals, whatever other items are missing will be purchased by the Vatican almoner’s office using the proceeds from the offerings people make for parchments certifying a papal blessing.

Vatican workers carried out the shower construction, and the final result reflects “great sobriety and dignity, while also using modern features: every sink has hot water, a soap dispenser and hand dryers – all of which are motion activated”, it said. Walls have been sealed with a “unique resin” rather than the usual porcelain tiles to guarantee “maximum cleanliness”.

The Vatican communiqué said the St Peter’s shower project is part of a larger initiative, in partnership with local parishes, to install similar amenities throughout the city in areas where there are soup kitchens and large numbers of homeless people.

Archbishop Konrad Krajewski, who distributes charity on behalf of Pope Francis, told the news agency ANSA in January that they wanted to build showers and offer haircuts as a way to “give people their dignity”.

“When a person has no means of washing themselves, they are rejected by society, and we all know a homeless person cannot enter a public establishment such as a bar or a restaurant and ask to use the bathroom because they are told to go away,” he told the Italian news agency.

The archbishop told the news site Vatican Insider that the idea came when he was talking to a homeless man near the Vatican last year and discovered it was the man’s 50th birthday. He invited the man to a restaurant for dinner, but the man declined, saying a restaurant would not let him in because of his odour.

Several people living on the streets of Rome or in tents say it is not difficult to find a parish or charity that will give them something to eat, but finding a place to wash is much more difficult.

As winter rains continued in the capital, the papal almoner also authorised the distribution of 300 umbrellas to homeless people around the Vatican and in other parts of Rome.

He told ANSA that the umbrellas had been left behind by tourists in the Vatican Museums.