McDonald's accused of exploiting homeless people in Rome

Local group says fast-food chain’s pledge to donate 1,000 meals is a cynical PR strategy after Vatican restaurant opening

McDonald’s has been accused of exploiting homeless people in Rome as part of a public relations strategy to gain favour with locals following the controversial opening of a restaurant within steps of the Vatican.

A community group called Safeguard the Borgo said a recent initiative by McDonald’s to pledge 1,000 meals to the homeless was nothing but a “commercial transaction which cynically uses the homeless and offends many years and daily work [done by others] to help alleviate extreme poverty”.

The US fast-food chain revealed the initiative after a handful of cardinals, as well as the Borgo group, complained last year that opening a McDonald’s so close to St Peter’s Square would further degrade and commercialise the Unesco-protected neighbourhood.

The restaurant opened on 30 December and Monday marked the first day of dozens of McDonald’s meals being reportedly donated to a charity that distributed them at a local walk-in clinic.

Homeless people eat hamburgers outside a Medicina Solidale centre in Rome
Homeless people eat hamburgers outside a Medicina Solidale centre in Rome on Monday. Photograph: Gregorio Borgia/AP

The meal consisted of a double cheeseburger, an apple and water, according to Reuters.

Pierfrancesco Spiga, 46, an unemployed and homeless Rome native, told the news agency that other companies should follow the example of McDonald’s.

“It would be good if these multinational companies gave food at the end of the day to poor people who don’t have any, instead of throwing it away,” Spiga said.

But the Borgo group said it was more important to recognise the work of groups such as the Catholic charity Caritas and other residents of the neighbourhood that were working systematically to help homeless people survive.

“For how long will the show of the ‘free drink’ go on, in what ways will it be given, and how long will the homeless be allowed to use the location and bathrooms of the fast-food restaurant [before they are treated] like the plague,” the community organisation said in a statement.

It added: “Why doesn’t McDonald’s distribute its food waste to the homeless every day?”

According to Reuters, the move to give meals away was initiated after the director of a charity, Medicina Solidale, wrote to McDonald’s in the wake of the criticism over the restaurant opening. The initiative involves 1,000 meals being given away over the next six months, which the Medicina Solidale said would not resolve hunger, but could help.

McDonald’s declined to comment directly. But in an email the company sent the Guardian a comment from the director of Medicina Solidale in which the charity said it was satisfied with its close partnership with the fast-food group.

“The offer of meals let us make a step forward, giving to the women and men living on the street in the neighbourhood the chance of a balanced meal, with an adequate supply of proteins and vitamins,” said Lucia Ercoli, director of Medicina Solidale.

Reuters said 50 lunches were served on Monday.

Pope Francis has been a strong advocate for the homeless in Rome. On his 80th birthday last month, he sat down to breakfast with eight homeless people before celebrating mass. He has also spoken at a recent mass of the need to end the exclusion of people in need, a fact he underlined by giving the homeless the seats in St Peter’s Basilica usually reserved for VIPs.


Stephanie Kirchgaessner in Rome

The GuardianTramp

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