Rome’s occupied domestic violence shelter under threat

Lucha y Siesta is a unique occupation in Italy’s capital: it is one of Rome’s few domestic violence shelters. Now, it is under threat because the building’s owner wants to sell it.

15 January 2018

An image of Lucha y Siesta on their Facebook page.

An image of Lucha y Siesta on the centre's Facebook page. Photo: lucha.ysiesta/Facebook.

Jasmine* got married two days before her eighteenth birthday in 2013. Three years later, she arrived at Lucha y Siesta, an occupied domestic violence shelter that has supported hundreds of women over the last decade.

In an eastern suburb of Rome, it is one of just four domestic violence shelters in Italy’s capital city, where women escaping violence receive little-publicly funded support. Now, it is also under threat – the public company that owns the building wants to sell it.

Originally from Bangladesh, Jasmine left her husband in 2016. He hit and raped her, she told me, and would lock her up in their apartment. After denouncing him to the police, she escaped.

Jasmine quickly found work, albeit poorly-paid and precarious. But finding a home was much harder. Noone wanted to rent a flat to a single woman of foreign origin, she said.

Her luck changed when a social worker from a women’s helpline told Jasmine about Lucha y Siesta, which supports Italian and foreign women who have experienced psychological, physical or economical violence from relatives, and in particular from husbands or partners.

“We register ten cases per month, one of which is serious: women with suitcases who have run away from domestic violence situations,” a Lucha y Siesta volunteer told me. At the heart of the centre is a counselling service and non-stop a 24-hour telephone helpline.

Lucha y Siesta.

Lucha y Siesta. Photo: lucha.ysiesta/Facebook.

Jasmine didn’t know a single word of Italian word when she left her husband. She has since learned the language and attended professional development classes. Today she works as an assistant cook for a sushi company that supplies supermarkets and restaurants.

But now she, and other women living at Lucha y Siesta, risk ending up on the street again. The shelter’s very existence is under threat because ATAC – the local transport company – owns the building and wants to sell it.

The company has been struggling financially for years and is selling off its real estate. Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera estimates that its property assets are in the range of €100 million. It owns parking lots and office blocks, among other structures.

Simona Ammerata, an activist at Lucha y Siesta, told me that representatives of ATAC came to the centre and said that paperwork to sell the building was under development.

City official Monica Lozzi has also met the group and has expressed concern over their situation and the possibility that the group will be evicted.

At ATAC’s press office, Maurizio Sgroi denied that paperwork for the building’s sale has started. Meanwhile, supporters of Lucha y Siesta have launched a petition to ask local authorities not to approve redevelopment plans from the company, expected by March.

A necessary occupation

Lucha y Siesta is housed in a two-story building with green shutters and pale orange walls. It is surrounded by a large garden where volunteers have built a playground for children.

The building was constructed when the area was still relatively rural. Today, it is surrounded by working-class blocks of flats. In the 1960s and 1970s the area was intensively developed with new and towering buildings around the historical Cinecitta studios.

Activists occupied the building in 2008. Since then, Lucha y Siesta has provided counselling services and legal advice to women who have experienced domestic violence.

The centre also has 14 rooms to house women on the run from violence. There is a library, a gym with free yoga classes for local residents, and a game room for children.

It is a unique, independent space that provides essential social services in a city where there is less and less support for women. It receives no public funding.

Lucha y Siesta.

The garden at Lucha y Siesta. Photo: Annalisa Camilli.

In Rome, there are only four active domestic violence shelters and two safe houses, with a total of about 30 beds, a source in the regional public administration office told me.

This is far fewer than the four hundreds spots it needs, according to the Council of Europe’s recommendation of one bed per 10,000 inhabitants.

Across Italy there are only 500 spots in domestic violence shelters compared to 5,700 needed. In Lazio, the province where Rome is located, 1.39 million euros were allocated by the state in 2015 to open eight new shelters and three safe houses.

Since then, one centre in Lazio has closed and a new one announced in 2016 is still not operational.

Italian statistics suggest that one in three Italian women will experience violence over the course of their lives, said Ammerat. But funds for the prevention of such violence, and for domestic violence shelters, are extremely limited.

In Rome, three other historical spaces are under threat of closure: casa internazionale delle donne, centro donna LISA, and centro donne DALIA.

In 2017, 113 women in Rome were killed by their husbands or partners, said another worker at Lucha y Siesta, “but in Italy an observatory on gender violence that can aggregate all the facts… does not exist.”

Figures on such violence may be underestimates as a result, and activists warn that this may undermine efforts to address it by encouraging policies focused on emergencies.

Shelter and investment

Over the last decade, Lucha y Siesta has provided shelter for hundreds of women; about 1,000 people have received counselling services here.

“When we entered [the building], we wanted to denounce above all the lack of accommodation for people with this kind of difficulty, and offer a residence without an expiry date,” Michela, one of the activists, told me.

Lucha y Siesta.

Lucha y Siesta. Photo: Annalisa Camilli.

In Rome’s publicly-funded safe houses women can stay for a maximum of six months, though women who have experienced violence may need much longer to get back on their feet and rebuild autonomous lives, especially if they also have children.

Without a cent of public money, Lucha y Siesta has often struggled to cover ordinary expenses. ATAC previously tried to sell the building at auction in 2014, without success. At the time, activists participated in the auction with a symbolic bid.

They also estimated that they had done so much work on the space, and services provided (from shelter to legal advice to building maintenance and fundraising), that they had effectively invested the equivalent of €2,654,088 in it over the previous six years.

At Lucha y Siesta, and many other such spaces in Rome and across Italy, women’s lives are increasingly precarious.

Jasmine told me that she now has a ‘normal’ life: a job, new friends, and hopes of finding a new partner and a healthy relationship. But she is scared that she will be forced to leave the shelter. “For me the women at Lucha y Siesta are like a family,” she said.

* Names have been changed to protect identities.

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