My names Carmine Ariete and Im 41 years old. Im the one in the photo. Ill forgive you if you think the years have been unkind but thats life on the street for you.

As you can see though, Im not your stereotypical homeless person either. No wine stains on my clothes. No needle holes in my arms. No hair lice. Then again how many of us, homeless or otherwise, fit into stereotypes?

Nevertheless I guess my story is pretty typical. Mental health problems cost me my marriage, my home and a steady job at state broadcaster RAI. With no family to lean on I ended up on the street. Ive been here for 11 years. Substitute mental health problems with alcoholism, hassles with parents or bad luck, and youll have a nutshell containing many cases like mine.

Im not a confirmed bum. I dont revel in the freedom of life without work and family ties, and I dont earn a small fortune begging on the metro. Id love to return to normality. Getting up at the crack of dawn and wading through rush-hour traffic to earn barely enough to pay the bills is my idea of heaven.

But once youve lost normality its darn difficult to get it back. In part the social services system here makes sure of that. Fair dues, the city council does keep you alive. They organise a bed for you in a shelter Im at the Salvation Army and meal tickets so you dont starve.

But thats all.

Benefits? Forget it. What do you need money for? the bureaucrats say. Youve got a bed at night and a bite to eat in the day. And if we gave you cash youd only waste it. Maybe theyre right. Maybe Id just get hammered and come back the next day for more.

But I doubt it I dont drink. On the other hand, I might set about finding myself a place. I might use the money to get to job interviews. I might use it in a thousand different ways to regain my autonomy. Then I wouldnt have to scrounge off the city or anyone else.

But well never know because they wont give me that sort of help. Im trapped.

As things are, all I can do is eat my designated meals and sleep. On average I pick up three fines a week on public transport because I have no money for the bus fare. When I want to indulge one of my two vices drinking coffee and smoking I have to beg or steal.

But while social services are careful with their cash, they are generous with their advice. Ive had no end of appointments with social workers and fresh-from-college psychologists. No doubt they do their best. But its hard to listen when most of them are kids who still live at home with mum and dad. What do they know about solving problems when theyve never had any?

Besides, what can they suggest? The only way out of homelessness is to get a job. I try, but after getting badly burned in an accident several years ago my options are limited. Ive registered with all the employment agencies in town. When you get an interview, though, its difficult to hide the fact you sleep in a shelter. You live where? Ah, so youre a tramp, they say and that is that.

Although I rarely have to sleep rough, I still effectively live on the street. The hostels kick you out in the morning and dont let you back until the evening. So you have to wander around all day with nowhere to go and nothing to do.

The street is a hostile place. Thugs and robbers often target down-and-outs because were vulnerable. God only knows what they hope to get out of us. Then there are other homeless people to contend with,

and the appeal of the outdoors greatly diminishes in winter.

But the hardship is not the worst part. The most soul-shattering thing is the loneliness. Can you imagine what its like to have no

one to talk to hour after hour? No one to share your thoughts and opinions with. No one to grumble to. No ones leg to pull. Your only company is the continuous thought that if something happened to you, no one would much notice or care.

It sends you up the wall with frustration and puts thoughts in your box that are too grim to mention here.

I havent given up, though. True, 11 years of homelessness have knocked some optimism out of me. But there are people, like the volunteers at the S. Egidio Community, who do all they can to lend a hand. So, armed with a few scraps of hope and a stubborn sense of humour, I keep going.

Communit di S. Egidio, Piazza di S. Egidio 3/a, tel. 06585661.

Esercito della Salvezza (Salvation Army) Centro Sociale

Il Rifugio, Via degli Apuli 41, tel. 064451351.

Comune di Roma, Sala operativa sociale, tel. 800440022.

Picture: Carmine Ariete. Photo by Paul Virgo.