The best night out in Rome

Silver Travel Advisor director and PR, Mary Stuart-Miller, was recently featured both on BBC Radio and in the Daily Mail for the work she is doing with the homeless in Rome. She tells Silver Travel Advisor exclusively what her motivations are and how her greatest fulfilment is to inspire others.

Queuing for food: Migrants join the line at Rome's Boabab Refugee Centre to eat food prepared by volunteers. I didn’t know that homeless people stuff wet loo paper into locks as people go into apartment blocks, it keeps the door from re-locking so they can nip in after the residents and sleep on the roof.

I didn’t know they wash their T-shirts in water fountains (in Rome) and sit and wait while they dry.

Or that they make small stoves out of Coke cans, or take the discarded cardboard boxes from outside shops, flatten them and slot them beside a gate or in a gap in a wall, to pick up later.

They learn many tricks and tips for survival. They have to, because they feel that no-one cares about them. They feel alone. Most believe that if became unwell, or broke a bone, or simply disappeared, there is no-one in the world to care enough to help them, find them, take their hand or hug them.

Mary now cooks 200 meals every week for the homeless and refugees in Rome. I came to Rome for love. I have been a frequent visitor to the city since I met an Italian journalist on one of Star Clippers’ tall ships three years ago. It was a whirlwind time, full of romance, expectation, excitement and, of course, extremes of human emotion.

Mary's Beetle car stuffed with provisions. The romance lasted until recently. However, during frequent visits to the city, I soon found love on the streets of Rome. I called my journeying to Rome `Project Rome’, and I now use as part of my project to inspire people to do small things with great love, wherever they are in the world.

To smile with warmth at another human, to pay an old person’s taxi fare, to carry the luggage of someone struggling, to buy a bag of groceries for a man begging, to buy a new pair of trainers and then give them to someone else (I call that `double giving’). Or to talk to someone, to listen to them, or to hold their hand or embrace them. To do at least one small act of love, every single day. And it doesn’t matter what we do, how we do it, where we do it, as long as we do it.

A young migrant accepts donations of clothes from the charity set up at Rome's `Boabab Refugee Centre. Homeless, street people, are at the extreme end of the spectrum of people who need our love. Many are invisible. They have fallen below a thin line. They have daily routines to pass the time, to clean themselves, to eat, to rest and to sleep. They know where to queue for food, which stations have hot water, many days they have to find new roof, doorway, park or pavement to sleep on, usually just 4 hours a night before being moved. They live a life of fear and uncertainty.

In Rome, (Roma in Italian), they may be refugees, from Africa, from the Middle East or from Europe, or they may be Italian.

`Roma’ is love (Amor) backwards and Rome is a city that exudes love through the incredible energy, passion and spirit that has been poured into art, sculpture and architecture that is visible on every street, in numerous buildings, monuments, fountains, works of art, paintings and facades, in the food, in the colour, the light, the Tiber and the people. So it seemed right to call my project `Project Rome’. While the name may sound destination-specific, it’s not. The spirit and inspiration of Project Rome can be exported to Project Bradford, Project Edinburgh, or Project Dakha.

Beans, lentils and chick-peas are essential staples that make Mary's money go further. Tiburtina Tuesday is Project Rome’s weekly event and has been called “the best night out in Rome”. We take over 200 home cooked meals to Tiburtina Station in Rome and give them to homeless men and women. For many it is the only cooked meal they eat in a week.

The food we give is of the quality, nutritional value and tastiness that we would give to our own children, friends or families, including chicken, lentils, beans, meat, rice, pasta and potatoes. If I wouldn’t give it to my children, then I won’t put it in my shopping trolley.

Mary's youngest daughter Tilly pairs up new trainers for the refugees. We also take `orders’ for the clothes or equipment that homeless individuals need, such as sleeping bags, jeans, shoes, jackets, pullovers or t-shirts, toiletries, air beds, blankets and pillows. They are bought from Sports Direct online, shipped to Italy and handed out, often 25 or 30 new pairs of trainers at a time. We buy jeans from UK charity shops and put them in hand-luggage on easyJet flights. The biggest irony is purchasing a pair of Armani or Versace jeans for £6 in an Oxfam or Age UK shop and bringing them back to the home of Italian design, to homeless Italians. Sleeping bags, blankets and air beds are now desperately needed as the homeless face winter sleeping outdoors. We placed orders for £800 worth of footwear, bags, blankets and sleeping bags last week alone.

Back to the 2:45am: Mary makes a late trip to a local shop to buy more olive oil to cook with. Tiburtina Tuesday started after I helped a charity give sandwiches and fruit on the streets one evening. What they were doing was certainly benevolent, but not magnanimous. With the support of the Vatican, the church, many charities and individuals, no-one is likely to starve in Rome, but a homeless person may well expire from a surfeit of cold pannini, pizza and carbohydrate.

Give a man a piece of pizza and he will survive. Give him a home-cooked, nutritious meal and you start to change the way he feels about himself. He will know that he matters enough for you to have cooked for him. So even if the raw ingredients are important, it’s not about the food itself. It’s about the love that goes into buying it, cooking it and handing it out; also not so hot that the plastic take-away boxes melt, but hot enough to retain flavour and be comforting and tasty. Enough meals so that everyone gets one, safely sealed in a box as many will eat it the next day, or make it last two or three meal-times.

Clothes donations must be checked and sorted before being handed out. I know the names of many of those who come to Tiburtina Tuesday, I know their shoe sizes, the size of jeans they want, whether they have a sleeping bag or not. That means everything to them. When the meals are all in carrier bags or stomachs, I shake, touch and hold hands, I hug people, I kiss many on the cheeks. Not in a benevolent way, it’s all spontaneous and just an expression of human feeling. They want to touch my hands, to feel the human contact, to have my arms around them. When did anyone last hug them?

Many Daily Mail readers took the trouble to point out that charity starts at home, I should be doing this in England, for ex-soldiers, or British people, or orphans, etc. They have missed the point completely. But there’s been no time to reply, because I have been processing offers of help and positive messages that, to my huge embarrassment and humility, tell me that I am an inspiration. This elevates me to a level of love and fulfilment that the critics will never even know, let alone feel.

Migrants queue to get a hot meal: the project costs Mary around 180 euros a week to fund. I have just spent the weekend learning a huge amount from a former homeless man so that I can immerse myself even further and really understand what is needed. He and I are going to spend a night on the streets of Rome together. Ironically, for a PR, we’ll sleep in the entrance to the Press Office outside St. Peter’s Square.

I do not expect anyone else to cook 200 meals. I wouldn’t recommend trying sleeping on the streets. I am not expecting anyone to buy 20 pairs of trainers. The last thing I would want is to make another person feel guilty. Some people do more than me, some people do less. I do what I do because I can. I would say to the person who tells me they can’t cook 200 meals, then just cook one. Everyone should do what they feel, as much or as little as they can, as long as we all do small things, with great love, wherever we are in the world.

Dear Silver Travel Advisor Members

100 sleeping bags would bring a huge amount of love to 100 men who are about to face winter alone, cold and worried. They cost £10 from Sports Direct, and if you can, please sponsor a man at this link  And then maybe you can find a way of bringing the inspiration of Project Rome to your own home town.

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Mary Stuart-Miller

Travel writer & PR

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