From the streets to the catwalk

From the streets to the catwalk 10/07/2009

FiorellaFiorella, 50, lived on the streets of Bologna, Italy, for two years before starting a vocational training course designed for homeless people.

“I love Bologna, but it's been my ruin,” says Fiorella, surveying the Italian city's world-renowned Piazza Maggiore. “And yet there's a kind of solidarity on the streets that you don't find anywhere else.”

Since she ran away from home as a teenager, Fiorella has had a tough and eventful existence. She spent several years in prison, followed by a long period of depression. For two years she lived rough, sleeping in parks and station waiting rooms. Now, at the age of 50, her life has finally settled down. She shares a flat of her own with her placid mongrel Alsatian dog, Alba, and has a stable relationship. She also manages an elegantly decorated vintage clothes shop – Il Vestito – in the centre of the city, where residents and tourists stroll through Bologna's famous arcades. The shop belongs to Piazza Grande, a local organisation set up in 1993 to support homeless people. With support from the European Union, through the European Social Fund, Piazza Grande arranged the dressmaking training that led Fiorella into work and restored her self-respect.

“Piazza Grande accepted me and gave me the space and time to recover, and I took all the opportunities they offered me,” she says. “I have had lots of problems, but I have always kept my dignity and my values. In essence, I’m a worker.”

Breaking free

Fiorella was born into a wealthy family, but rejected her background from an early age. “My mother developed a tumour after I was born. She died when I was 13. It was a difficult story. I could have eaten off a golden platter, but I have always had a wish for freedom. I wanted to live my own life. My parents were splendid, and they wanted to spoil me. But at the time I just wasn’t interested.

“It’s important to respect your family,” she now believes. “They made mistakes with me, but it was because they had problems. And they were too rich.”

Fiorella ran away from home to get married at 16. “My father forbade my marriage, so we went to Rome to get permission from the Pope himself,” she remembers. But the couple separated within a year. She soon fell in love again, this time with an American Indian. But a week after Fiorella discovered she was pregnant, he was killed in a flying accident. She was about 18 when she gave birth to their son Michele, who was diagnosed with congenital heart disease and died in hospital after just six months.

“After my son’s death, things got bad,” admits Fiorella. For the next few years she travelled the world - Australia, Brazil, Thailand – always surviving on the margins of crime. When finally she was caught, it led to a lengthy prison term.

Yet, on her release, she was reunited with her father, and started work in his restaurant business as a cook. Then, one morning in 1992, when Fiorella took him his morning coffee, she found he was dead. He had suffered a massive heart attack. The tragedy plunged her into a deepening depression. Although she went on working at first, “I wasn’t living in reality,” she says. Cutting herself off from other family members, she resorted to drug-taking. “Heroin, cocaine, methadone … I’ve tried everything.” As she fell into debt, she started stealing to feed herself and sustain her habit, until she finally ended up homeless.

Help where it is needed

Fiorella’s first contact with Piazza Grande was in 2002. Originally launched to publish a newspaper to raise funds for homeless people, the organisation now involves social workers and ‘street lawyers’ (avvocati di strada) who go out into the city to provide practical help (food, clothing and blankets) and advice. It also employs some 20 people in its cleaning and decorating cooperative (Fare Mondi), bicycle workshop, and the clothing warehouse, which collects donations and distributes them to people in need. It runs a theatre group, and has expanded to organise training activities, offering more job opportunities to the poorest and most excluded people in Bologna, many of them immigrants and Roma. “The aim is that everyone develops and does what they can,” say organisers.

“Piazza Grande workers found me in the park,” remembers Fiorella. “I’m not really a street person, so I had decided to come off drugs. I did it alone, by myself. I learned to fight for myself when I was in my mother’s womb, and I have a strong character – in prison they used to call me ‘ice and fire’ because of my pale eyes. I have seen too many things, so before being attacked, I attack myself. I’m hard, but I’m also passionate.”

The essential value of work

Piazza Grande offered the hope she needed. After several months in hospital with serious liver and kidney damage that could have been fatal, she was finally able to get accommodation of her own. “Although I still had problems, Piazza Grande started to give me work,” she continues. In 2004, she took the course in basic dressmaking. “When I was little, my babysitters were dressmakers. I used to watch them. It was always something I wanted to do myself.” A second training in 2006 taught her to identify vintage garments and transform them into fashion wear. Finally, in November 2007, Il Vestito opened its doors. Fiorella and her assistant Micaela Ugolini are responsible for the financial management of the business, selecting items for sale from the clothing donations, and running the shop, with the assistance of a small team of trained dressmakers who carry out alterations.

“I am happy with what I do now – although I could take on a little more. But Piazza Grande has invested in me and I can only thank them,” reflects Fiorella. Some time ago, she was also reunited with her brothers and sisters, nephews and nieces, after a long period of isolation.

On the streets, she lived with a group of homeless people who shared mutual respect and an unwritten rule that each one minded his or her own business. “But I would never go back – absolutely not!” she declares. “I needed to get rid of my self-destructive instinct, but not the people I knew. It’s important to stay positive. If you are positive you can help other people as well, and I try and give other people a hand, in my own way.”