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The lion’s head fountain on Lungotevere Testaccio

For most, the Lungotevere is just the western border of Testaccio, a busy road flanked by a cracked pavement that runs the length of the river wall. Beyond that, there is only a sparse canopy of trees on a steep slope and the fast running Tiber. The Tevere is tobacco-coloured in the winter, carrying debris down stream, wide and dimpled with undercurrents. Above, dog-walkers brave the pathway’s crazed tarmac and dried turds. If you park your car here overnight, sometimes a window is broken and your radio gone by dawn.

But it’s not quite the edge of civilisation. A homeless community has been making do over the wet winter down on the river bank, living in tarpaulin shacks and cooking over fires. Most people in Testaccio didn’t even notice; like many cities, Rome has a huge itinerant population and more living rough than it can handle. The community here was on the small side, hidden by the undergrowth, out of contact with the streets above: until tragedy struck at the end of February, and a baby fell from the makeshift camp into the river. 14 month-old Natalia died a few days later in Gemelli hospital, but the nomads were suddenly under the spotlight. Rome’s local council hurried them on, giving them a day’s warning to pack up, without providing them with a solution for where to go. Now if you peer over the wall, there’s just a single, white shelter nesting down amongst the trees. A dog barks. Maybe it’s occupied; it’s hard to tell.

What the child’s death did produce, however, was a concerted call for action in the district above. Testaccio’s local Green Party, the Sinistra Ecologia Libertà, has created an online petition asking the council to clean up the left bank of the river along the stretch running from Ponte Sublicio to Ponte Testaccio. They’re not trying to erase a memory; the petition calls both for the creation of a pleasant, viable path at water level, but also permanent homes for the Roma families in a safer location, with adequate facilities and running water. More details via the link below.

It’s been a long, wet winter in Rome and numerous homeless people lost the fight against the cold all over the city. But the next time you pass by the lion’s head fountain on Lungotevere Testaccio, spare a thought for those who spent it living beyond the river wall.

Online petition: http://firmiamo.it/bonifica-area-golenale-lungotevere-testaccio

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Words and photos © Isobel Lee