In Sicily, a 113-year wait for houses could be over

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MESSINA, Italy – The little girl climbed the metal roofs of the huts, chased a rat as big as a rabbit, then stopped to look worriedly at the sky.

“I think it’s going to rain,” she said.

Like her father, grandfather and great-grandfather before her, the daughter, Aurora, 8, grew up in the slums of the Sicilian city of Messina. And, like them, she knows that the rain is bad news at home.

Water seeps through their asbestos-covered roofs, permeates their walls and floods their streets. To keep children dry, adults sometimes have to wear them on their heads.

In 1908, a devastating earthquake struck Messina, killing around half of the population as 90% of the city collapsed. In the process, the authorities built temporary barracks, anticipating the construction of more solid housing for the displaced.

But more than a century later, around 6,500 Italians still live in makeshift hovels scattered around Messina, wedged between pine and eucalyptus forests and the strait that separates Sicily from mainland Italy.

“They said, ‘Stay there for a few days,’” said Domenica Cambria, 66, of the authorities’ pledge to her grandparents after the earthquake. “It was for eternity.”

Now, after decades of broken promises to replace shacks with decent housing, a more recent disaster finally appears to be the occasion for deliverance.

After severe coronavirus outbreaks in the city’s slums gained national attention, the government allocated € 100 million to improve housing in Messina, as part of a package to curb the pandemic . The goal is to get everyone out of barracks-type houses within three years.

“A Western country, a European country like ours, cannot tolerate situations like that of Messina”, declared in May Mara Carfagna, Italian Minister of the South, announcing the relief measure.

One recent morning, Marcello Scurria, who runs the Messina redevelopment agency, parked near the Giostra slum. The region was ravaged by a coronavirus outbreak in December as the virus spread through narrow alleys and through nearby neighborhoods.

As soon as Scurria got out of his car, the locals rushed over to him, wanting to know when the money would come for new homes, when their lives would finally change.

Scurria had good news for them.

“The government will start distributing houses soon,” he said, “and you will be the first to get one. “

Scurria said that in addition to the money, the national government has given the local prefect special powers to carry out the necessary relocations. He said this was decisive in bypassing layers of bureaucracy that had crippled past efforts to tear down and rebuild.

As devastating as the virus is, Scurria said it was only exacerbating what had been a pre-existing health emergency in those neighborhoods.

In the damp huts, built with materials laden with asbestos, residents have high rates of cancer, asthma and pneumonia. On average, they live seven years less than the rest of Messina’s population, according to an estimate from the local Community Foundation, a nonprofit focused on human development.

“The coronavirus has shone the spotlight on a situation they had refused to see,” said Cateno De Luca, mayor of Messina, referring to the national government. Since his election in 2018, he had worked to empty the slums and tried to draw national attention to them.

In the oldest of these slums, wooden parts of the original shacks can still be seen, patched up over the years with thin concrete walls, wire netting, plywood, sheet metal and plastic wires. Other cabins were built in the 1930s by the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini. Around and among them, under the motorway loops and under bridges covered with bougainvillea, more recent barracks have multiplied, becoming one of the markers of the port city.

The families who live here are doing what they can to settle in their homes. They paint the walls brightly, continually mend broken roofs, fix sewage leaks and plug worm holes.

Some use strong scents inside to control the smell of garbage coming in from outside. Parents cover damp-stained walls with pictures of their children sent to live with loved ones due to asthma and other health problems. Mothers promise their daughters a balcony, just as their own mothers did with them.

Their dreams of what their new homes might offer are modest. “I would like to have a main door, a bell,” said Carmelo Gasbarro, 47. “And a roof so you can’t hear the rain when it falls.”

De Luca, who was elected in 2018, managed even before special funding to clear seven of the city’s 72 hut blocks, providing new homes to 300 families. Now, with the 100 million euros from Rome, the government aims to eliminate all the remaining slums.

But many in the slums are skeptical.

“I don’t trust anyone anymore,” said Sebastiano De Luca, 58, who lives in a block of shacks wedged between a blocked canal and the morgue at Messina’s largest hospital.

The small block of shacks where De Luca lives is not the government’s priority, so he and his neighbors – including the little girl Aurora – will have to wait for new homes. The initial focus is on the Taormina slum, which, with around 430 families, is the largest in the city. The plan is to demolish the fragile blocks of the huts and build energy efficient apartments instead.

Cambria, the woman whose grandfather had been promised this accommodation was only temporary, sat in the hut in the Taormina slum that she had inherited from her parents – and that she sometimes shared with up to 13 years old. members of his family.

“If they do,” Cambria said of the government’s plan, “I hope they give you a house first,” she told her daughter-in-law Salvatrice Mangano, whose girl suffers from asthma.

“No, you should go first,” Mangano, 39, told him. “You’ve been waiting your whole life.”

The same goes for many others, including Provvidenza Fucile, 82, who lives in a smaller slum near the town cemetery – among the largest in Italy due to all the graves from the earthquake in 1908.

As she stepped out of her log cabin – where she struggles daily with tree roots emerging from the ground and snakes falling through holes in her roof – Fucile said she was not optimistic about the government plan.

“My husband used to say that we will die in the hut,” she said. “In fact, he died here.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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