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On 5th December 2008, Caritas Romana celebrates the twentieth anniversary of its AIDS “family houses”. Apart from providing support to people living with AIDS, Caritas Romana seeks to build understanding and knowledge among the community.
Nestled in the woods of a Rome park are Caritas Romana’s “family houses” for people living with AIDS.
Don Luigi Di Liegro, founder of Caritas Romana, had to battle the reservations of the local community before the Villa Glori site could be used to house people with AIDS. It was 1988, the disease was relatively new and people were afraid that the upper-crust neighbourhood would be brought down by waves of drug addicts seeking refuge.
Massimo Raimondi, who is in charge of the family houses today says that despite 25 years of information, people are still afraid to get close to people living with AIDS.
“People who have AIDS have been painted as gay, or drug addicts, or people who’ve been in prison – in other words, people who are different from everyone else,” says Mr Raimondi.
He says that even young people are not that aware of the nature of AIDS and some of them think that only drug addicts can get it.
Caritas Romana tries to combat this misinformation and stigma through the work of the family houses. It invites groups such as catechism circles and the scouts to come and learn about life with AIDS.
On World AIDS Day, 1st December, 300 people were invited to the complex for an event labeled “From Fear to Hope” in which people living and working with AIDS told their stories. Mr Raimondi says people’s attitudes towards those with AIDS and the illness change when they come and visit the houses.
Mr Raimondi says part of the work of the family houses is to support people living with AIDS in facing their difficulty and facing the world.
“Fewer medicines and more human relationships,” is how he describes their approach.
There is one house dedicated to men, another for women and children and another for people who are more autonomous and who with the right care can return to society.
Re-insertion into society and finding a job and home can be difficult – especially for people who come from a background of drugs and prostitution and don’t know any other life.
Caritas Romana gives psychological support to those who have the potential to be autonomous so they can manage their lives.
Keeping people active and stimulated is very important for the people who remain at the houses. They have daily activities, for example they participate in workshops to make things such as candle holders which are then given out or sold in parishes.
The house occupants also learn how to give solidarity to other people in difficulty. One initiative saw them raising 5000 euro for women with HIV in Africa by selling pot ornaments they had made. Meanwhile, last New Year’s day they welcomed the homeless people from the area and prepared them a slap-up meal which they served in waiters’ uniforms given on loan from the Sheraton hotel.
Mr Raimondi says that people often rediscover their faith when they have AIDS. But even though the family houses are Church run, there are people from other religions and they are free to follow their own faith.
Mr Raimondi has worked at the family houses for 16 years and says his faith has helped him through some tough times and has been strengthened as a result.
“It’s been an important experience for me and I’ve understood that you can’t judge people,” says Mr Raimondi.
However, despite the positive experience he’s had working with people with AIDS he’s afraid of the direction today’s society is taking.
“There’s an increasing detachment between those who are suffering and those who are well,” he says.
In the green oasis of Villa Glori, Caritas Romana ensures that this gap is bridged.