MESSINA, Italy – The girl climbed the metal roofs of the huts, chased a rat the size of a rabbit, and then stopped to look fearfully at the sky.
“I think it’s going to rain,” he said.
Like her father, grandfather and great-grandfather before her, the 8-year-old girl Aurora grew up in the suburbs of the Sicilian city of Messina. And, like them, you know that rain is bad news at home.
Water seeps through your asbestos-lined roofs, permeates your walls, and floods your street. To keep children dry, adults sometimes have to carry them on their heads.
In 1908, a devastating earthquake shook Messina, killing roughly half the population while 90 percent of the city collapsed. Subsequently, the authorities built temporary huts, anticipating that eventually more resistant housing would be built for the displaced.
But more than a century later, some 6,500 Italians still live in makeshift shacks scattered across Messina, nestled between pine and eucalyptus forests and the narrow straits that separate Sicily from the Italian mainland.
“They said, ‘Stay there for a couple of days,’” Domenica Cambria, 66, said of the promise authorities made to her grandparents after the earthquake. “It was for eternity.”
Now, after decades of broken promises that the shacks would be replaced by decent housing, a more recent disaster appears to be the occasion for liberation at last.
After the severe outbreaks of the coronavirus in the city’s slums attracted national attention, the government allocated 100 million euros to improve housing in Messina, within a package of measures to curb the pandemic. The goal is to get everyone out of the barracks in three years.
“A western country, a European country like ours, cannot tolerate situations like Messina’s,” Mara Carfagna, Italy’s minister for the south, said in May, announcing the relief measure.
On a recent morning, Marcello Scurria, who runs Messina’s redevelopment agency, parked near the poor neighborhood of Giostra. The area had been devastated by a coronavirus outbreak in December as the virus spread through narrow alleys and tight spaces.
As soon as Mr. Scurria got out of his car, residents rushed up to him, wanting to know when the money for new homes would arrive, when their lives would finally change.
Mr. Scurria had good news for them.
“The government will start handing out houses soon,” he said, “and you will be the first to get one.”
Mr. Scurria said that in addition to the money, the national government gave the local prefect special powers to carry out the necessary relocations. He said that was critical to bypassing layers of bureaucracy that had crippled past efforts to demolish and rebuild.
As devastating as the virus was, Scurria said it only exacerbated what had been a pre-existing health emergency in these neighborhoods.
In the damp huts, built with asbestos-laden materials, residents have high rates of cancer, asthma and pneumonia. On average, they live seven years less than the rest of Messina’s population, according to a local estimate. Community foundation, a non-profit organization focused on human development.
“The coronavirus put the spotlight on a situation that they had refused to see,” said Cateno De Luca, mayor of Messina, referring to the national government. Since his election in 2018, he had worked to empty the slums and tried to draw national attention to them.
In the oldest of those slums, the wooden parts of the original shacks are still visible, patched up over the years with thin concrete walls, metal nets, plywood, sheet metal, and plastic wires. Other huts were built in the 1930s by the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini. Around and between them, under highway loops and under bougainvillea-covered bridges, the newest barracks have proliferated, becoming one of the landmarks of the port city.
The families that live here do everything they can to get them back home. They paint the walls in bright colors, incessantly repair broken ceilings, fix sewage leaks and plug holes made by worms.
Some use strong fragrances inside to tame the garbage smell that comes from outside. Parents cover damp-stained walls with photos of their children sent to live with relatives due to asthma or other health conditions. Mothers promise their daughters a balcony, just as their own mothers had done with them.
Their dreams of what their new homes could offer are modest. “I would like to have a front door, a bell,” said 47-year-old Carmelo Gasbarro. “And a roof that doesn’t hear the rain when it falls.”
Mayor De Luca, who was elected in 2018, managed even before the special funding to empty seven of the city’s 72 shack blocks, providing 300 families with new homes. Now, with the 100 million euros from Rome, the government aims to clean up all the remaining slums.
But many in the slums are skeptical.
“I don’t trust anyone anymore,” said Sebastiano De Luca, 58, who lives in a block of shacks squeezed between a clogged canal and the morgue of Messina’s largest hospital.
For decades, politicians have visited slums before elections, promising homes in exchange for votes. De Luca, unrelated to the mayor, said he once helped cast hundreds of votes from his neighbors to a local candidate on his guarantee to distribute housing after taking office. The promise was not kept.
“He made fun of me,” De Luca said on a recent morning, having spent the night before barefoot in the rain, clearing the gutter of garbage bags and debris to prevent his street from flooding.
The small block of shacks where Mr. De Luca lives is not the government’s priority, so he and his neighbors, including Aurora, the girl, will have to wait some time to get new homes. The initial focus is on the poor neighborhood of Taormina, which, with some 430 families, is the largest in the city. The plan is to tear down the fragile shack blocks and build energy-efficient apartments.
Ms. Cambria, the woman whose grandfather had been promised that this house was only temporary, was sitting in the shack in the poor neighborhood of Taormina that she inherited from her parents and sometimes shared with up to 13 relatives.
“If they do,” Cambria said of the government’s plan, “I hope they give you a house first,” he told his daughter-in-law Salvatrice Mangano, whose daughter has asthma.
“No, you must go first,” Ms. Mangano, 39, told him. “You’ve been waiting your whole life.”
So have many others, including 82-year-old Provvidenza Fucile, who lives in a smaller slum near the city’s cemetery, among the largest in Italy because of all the graves from the 1908 earthquake.
When he emerged from his wooden hut, where he struggles daily with tree roots emerging from the ground and snakes falling through holes in his roof, Fucile said he was not optimistic about the government’s plan.
“My husband used to say that we will die in the cabin,” she said. “In fact, he died here.”