Wearing a navy blue suit and a paisley silk scarf, a dapper middle-aged actor named Domenico Fumato overlooks a fluctuating line of scruffily clad men and women, all waiting for a free piece of bread or pizza.
Today, however, Fumato is not acting: he’s directing. His stage is an outdoor corner on Piazza Mastai, in the Roman neighborhood of Trastevere. His “actors” are a group of homeless people and his message is to show Romans the reality of a deep economic crisis.
Fumato started La Ronda del Caffelatte e Dolci, a private charity, five years ago in a theater. Volunteers now feed the homeless breakfast and coffee every Tuesday and Thursday morning at 9 a.m. in Piazza Mastai, sometimes with their own pocket money. “It is not a conventional way to feed the homeless,” Fumato concedes, “but the aim is to foster a welcoming and compassionate environment”.
Just off the busy Viale di Trastevere, volunteers scurry to spread Nutella and jam on slices of day-old bread, alongside espresso with milk and sugar. A tram full of local residents frequently screeches by.
Many of the people who attend La Ronda’s free breakfast sleep on the sidewalk of Viale di Trastevere or on the embankment of the Tiber, and have been for years. But a good number, especially among the younger adults, have only recently become homeless.
Loss of employment is the most common cause of homelessness in Italy. And in a period of economic struggle, more than half of Rome’s 8,000 homeless have been living on the street since losing their jobs, according to Italy’s National Institute of Statistics (ISTAT).
The Italian state rarely provides help to those without an income or a home, even in times of increasing poverty. “The idea of a community shelter is more prevalent in the United States than in Italy,” Fumato claims.
On the other hand, it is common for church organizations across the country to host charity services for those in need. According to ISTAT, 90 percent of the homeless population use these charity resources for food and shelter.
La Ronda, however, is not connected to the church. It is completely independent, run by volunteers and funded by private donations – including every slice of bread, pizza, and even the tables found underneath the food.
Fumato, who says he was taught to enjoy the “spirit of good-deeds” in his childhood in Ravenna, started La Ronda after meeting with Paolo Coccheri, an artist from Florence who started a similar program 20 years ago.
The first La Ronda service was set up in a theater, which hosted the production of a play named “Friends of the Street” in 2011. Homeless members of La Ronda acted along with Fumato in this play, representing the poor who had to suffer without help from society.
“La Ronda is a work of social art in which every artist can create his or her own story and set in a social context of their choice,” Fumato explains.
Now located in Piazza Mastai, La Ronda’s crowd of customers and volunteers display a similar stage-like-presence every Tuesday and Thursday morning.
A Roman grandmother, a short and feisty volunteer, usually takes the lead role on this unusual stage, shouting colorful words in Italian. Two men waiting in line act as side-commentators, while silent “extras” wait patiently for their caffèlatte.
Behind these personas is a harsh reality. Most of them carry their belongings over their tattered winter jackets, or in a plastic grocery bag and do not care for the occasional newscaster or paparazzo that shows up at the end of the “performance.”
“This isn’t a show, or a circus,” one homeless recently yelled to a visiting reporter, according to volunteer Sarah Hammond, who discovered the organization two years ago. She explained that “some people just want to go under the radar, take their breakfast and not be bothered.”
According to Hammond, the homeless enjoy the friendly human interaction provided by La Ronda, something they do not often get from passersby on the street. Customers like to come by La Ronda to say hello to old friends and keep the relationships they have with the local volunteers.
One homeless man, who took advantage of these breakfasts regularly, now volunteers to help other homeless members.
After most have gone through the breakfast line, small cliques start to form around the piazza. Two old men sit together on the fountain steps while a young man and an elderly woman enjoy a coffee together on the stone benches.
Julia Del Papa, community service and cultural program coordinator at John Cabot University, says older members are often seen letting newcomers go ahead of them in line for their first La Ronda breakfast.
“I can’t imagine myself in a state of hunger, being polite and allowing someone to go in front of me,” Del Papa marveled.
La Ronda’s loose structure, similar to an improvisation show, allows this kind of flexibility in the line. With few rules and regulations, volunteers and members easily interact with each other in an ever-changing environment.
While the loose structure helps to create a vibrant atmosphere, the lack of steady funding creates uncertainty—when the food is gone, it’s gone.
According to Hammond, volunteers can never predict the amount of food they will have, or the amount of homeless people who will show up. The group tries to provide enough food for everyone by bringing pre-packaged snacks for latecomers, but they sometimes have to throw out the bread because it is too hard to eat.
Along with pre-packaged snacks, volunteers often bring umbrellas to shelter the food in case it downpours. Lacking an indoor location, Fumato must cancel the breakfast if rain floods the piazza.
Volunteers quickly react to changing conditions and do their best to accommodate everyone who shows up to La Ronda for the short hour and a half of service.
At the end of which, in the vein of a well-earned bow after a theater performance, Fumato often gathers a few volunteers to smile for a digital camera, celebrating another successful morning of serving breakfast to the homeless.