Europe

In Sicily Slums, a 113-Year Wait for Housing May Be Over

MESSINA, Italy — The little girl climbed over the metal roofs of the shacks, gave chase to a rat as big as a rabbit, then stopped to look with trepidation at the sky.

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

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

Water leaks through their asbestos-coated roofs, permeates their walls and floods their street. To keep the children dry, adults sometimes have to carry them on their heads.

In 1908, a devastating earthquake struck Messina, killing about half of the population as 90 percent of the city collapsed. In the aftermath, the authorities built temporary shacks, anticipating that sturdier housing for the displaced would eventually be built.

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By The New York Times

But more than a century later, about 6,500 Italians still live in makeshift hovels scattered around Messina, which is wedged between pine and eucalyptus forests and the narrow straits separating Sicily from the Italian mainland.

“They said, ‘Stay there for a couple of days,’” Domenica Cambria, 66, said of the promise made by the authorities to her grandparents after the quake. “It was for eternity.”

Now, after decades of broken promises that the shacks would be replaced with decent housing, a more recent disaster appears to be the occasion for deliverance at last.

After severe outbreaks of the coronavirus in the city’s slums attracted national attention, the government allocated 100 million euros to improve housing in Messina, within a package of measures to curb the pandemic. The goal is to remove everyone from the barrackslike homes in three years.

“A Western country, a European country like ours, cannot tolerate situations such as that of Messina,” Mara Carfagna, Italy’s minister for the south, said in May as she announced the relief measure.

On a recent morning, Marcello Scurria, who heads Messina’s redevelopment agency, parked near the Giostra slum. The area had been ravaged by a coronavirus outbreak in December as the virus spread across the narrow alleys and through the close quarters.

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

Mr. Scurria had some good news for them.

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

Mr. Scurria said that in addition to money, the national government gave the local prefect special powers to carry out the necessary relocations. He said that was decisive for bypassing layers of bureaucracy that had paralyzed past efforts to demolish and rebuild.

As devastating as the virus was, Mr. Scurria said it only exacerbated what had been a pre-existing health emergency in these neighborhoods.

In the humid huts, built with asbestos-laden materials, 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 by the local Community Foundation, a nonprofit focused on human development.

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

In the oldest of those slums, wooden parts of the original shacks are still visible, patched up over the years with thin concrete walls, metal nets, plywood, sheet metal and plastic wires. Other shacks were built in the 1930s by Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime. Around and among them, below the highway loops and under bridges covered in bougainvillea trees, more recent barracks have proliferated, becoming one of the markers of the port city.

The families living here do what they can to make them home. They paint the walls in bright colors, incessantly fix broken roofs, repair sewage leaks and plug holes made by worms.

Some use strong fragrances inside to overpower the smell of garbage coming from outside. Parents cover the humidity-stained walls with pictures of their children sent to live with relatives because of asthma or other health conditions. Mothers promise their daughters a balcony, just as their own mothers had done with them.

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

Mayor De Luca, who was elected in 2018, managed even before the special funding to empty seven of the city’s 72 blocks of shacks, providing new homes to 300 families. Now, with the €100 million from Rome, the government aims to clear all of 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 squeezed between an obstructed canal and the morgue of Messina’s biggest hospital.

For decades, politicians have visited the slums before elections, promising housing in exchange for votes. Mr. De Luca — no relation to the mayor — said he once helped deliver hundreds of votes from his neighbors to a local candidate on his assurance of distributing homes after taking office. The promise went unfulfilled.

“He made a fool of me,” Mr. De Luca said on a recent morning, after he had spent the night before barefoot in the rain, freeing the canal from trash bags and waste to keep his street from flooding.

The small block of shacks where Mr. De Luca lives is not the government’s priority, so he and his neighbors — including Aurora, the little girl — will have to wait some time for new homes. The initial focus is on the Taormina slum, which, with about 430 families, is the city’s largest. The plan is to tear down the frail blocks of shacks and build energy-saving apartments instead.

Ms. Cambria, the woman whose grandfather had been promised that this housing was only temporary, was sitting in the shack in the Taormina slum that she inherited from her parents — and shared at times with up to 13 relatives.

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

“No, you should go first,” Ms. Mangano, 39, told her. “You have been waiting all your life.”

So have many others, including Provvidenza Fucile, 82, who lives in a smaller slum near the city’s cemetery — among the biggest in Italy because of all of the graves there from the 1908 earthquake.

As she emerged from her wooden shack — where she does battle daily with tree roots emerging from the floor and snakes falling through holes in her roof — Ms. Fucile said she was not optimistic about the government’s plan.

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

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