Woman living in her car brings sandwiches, love to the homeless of Houston

(Reuters) – Dominick SeJohn Walton spots a man with a shopping cart piled high with belongings and a sign that says “Homeless. Please Help” under a Texas highway overpass. With the coronavirus keeping many at home, the road is quieter than usual.

FILE PHOTO: Dominick Walton, who is homeless herself, leaves food bags for homeless people amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Houston, Texas, U.S., April 19, 2020. REUTERS/Go Nakamura

She hands him a plastic bag filled with a baloney and cheese sandwich, cookies, and applesauce. On the outside she has written in permanent blue marker: ‘God Bless. Jesus loves you. I love you!’

Walton knows what it is like to be homeless and hungry. She is currently living mainly in her car, sleeping at her sister’s apartment in Houston sometimes.

“I started serving meals to the homeless because I understand what it’s like not to know where your next meal is going to come from and that’s the least that I feel like we can do for our community is to give back,” said the 27-year-old.

Walton’s car became her home after she became depressed following surgery for an ectopic pregnancy. She quit her job as a gas station cashier and is now living in the 2010 Chevrolet Malibu, trying to save enough money to start a t-shirt business featuring her own designs. She was recently hired by a non-profit organization that distributes meals to low-income families.

In many U.S. cities, homeless people are spending their nights on empty trains, or camping behind closed businesses and under deserted highways. Many fear to enter homeless shelters, where the coronavirus can spread fast.

Walton drives around and spots a man sitting on the ground.

“Hello sir,” she calls out, her big smile hidden behind the surgical mask she wears. He does not respond, perhaps dozing, so she touches his elbow with her gloved hand to give him some food.

FILE PHOTO: Dominick Walton, who is homeless, sleeps in her car amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Houston, Texas, U.S., April 26, 2020. REUTERS/Go Nakamura

Walton buys the groceries herself or uses leftovers from her employer, making the bags in her sister’s apartment, where her 1-year-old and 4-year-old nieces play.

When she is done for the day, she parks her car near a mall, park, or just a quiet neighborhood, propping her cellphone against the car window while she stretches out in the front seat.

Her dreams: A t-shirt business so successful that she can give away even more food.

(Reporting by Go Nakamura; Writing by Lisa Shumaker; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)

Race for space to house vulnerable in coronavirus

By Zoe Tabary

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – “Stay home” – that’s the message stretching from Italy to Iran as the world tries to contain coronavirus. But what if you’ve got no place to call home, or your house is out of bounds in the pandemic?

Some 1.8 billion people worldwide are homeless or live in inadequate housing, experts say, calling for urgent measures to ensure the most vulnerable get sanctuary in the outbreak.

Thousands more need a temporary place to live, either to stay close to crisis centres at the core of the coronavirus fightback or to keep housemates infection-free during weeks of lockdown.

Worldwide, the respiratory disease – which emerged last year in China – has infected more than 490,000 people and the death toll tops 22,000, according to Johns Hopkins University.

“Housing has become the front line defence against the coronavirus, said Leilani Farha, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing. “Home has rarely been more of a life or death situation.”

To that end, officials are scouring cities for vacant spaces or disused buildings to turn into makeshift homes.

From empty motels to festival halls, conference centres to cottages – buildings are being repurposed at breakneck speed, with the homeless a top priority.

“Housing, not handcuffs or forced congregate sheltering, for those experiencing homelessness, is the way to best ensure we all remain safer,” Eric Tars, of the U.S. National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, said in a statement.

SHELTER

In Italy, which has registered more than 7,500 deaths from the virus – it is the world’s worst hit country – some rail stations are doubling up as centres offering shelter and wash rooms.

Alessandro Radicchi, who runs the Binario 95 shelter in Rome’s central train station, said police were now routinely stopping homeless people, saying they could pay a fine for wandering the streets without proof of residence.

“You can imagine how a homeless person who feels alone during an ordinary time, now really feels there is no one,” Radicchi told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

The centre supports about 70 people daily but can only sleep 12, Radicchi said, adding that the Italian capital has more than 40,000 people living without adequate housing but only 1,000 beds in homeless shelters.

“We cannot host all of them. But we tell them, ‘when you go in the street, remember these things like keep the mask and don’t touch anything if you don’t have to’,” he explained.

Officials expect the crisis to have an outsized impact on the homeless, who often make do without sanitation or food, bed down in close quarters and suffer more underlying illnesses.

For the millions of poor and daily wage workers in India, the threat of hunger and a lack of shelter looms larger than that of the deadly coronavirus, which has prompted the government to lock down the country until mid-April.

Since the shutdown began on Wednesday night, homeless shelters have filled with migrant workers and labourers who have lost their livelihoods and so cannot afford food or a bed.

ISOLATION

In the Canadian city of Montreal, a former hospital is this week being transformed into an isolation facility for homeless people exhibiting symptoms of coronavirus.

Patients will be kept in individual rooms in a building that sits at the top of a hill, tested for the virus and quarantined should they test positive, said a spokesman for the regional health agency, with capacity that can go up to 150 beds.

In London, the government will open a temporary hospital at the cavernous ExCel exhibition centre in east London, installing ventilators and beds in what was once an Olympic sporting venue.

U.S. communities have taken things into their own hands.

In California, a collective of homeless people and others whose housing is insecure have occupied six vacant, state-owned homes in the Los Angeles area.

“Letting hundreds of homes sit empty during a pandemic poses a health hazard to those like us — those who lack stable housing,” the Reclaiming Our Homes collective wrote on Facebook.

JUST A BED

Cities are also scrambling to help hard-pressed healthcare staff – working flat out and often without transport networks – with well-placed home owners opening up their flats for free.

As the virus decimates tourism, hotels and holiday lets are also sitting empty, prompting rental company Airbnb to open pages in Italy and France to connect medics with hosts.

“Doctors and nurses were requested to move from one city to another to support hospitals with exploding intensive care units. It was our desire to support … these heroes,” said Airbnb’s general manager in Italy, Giacomo Trovato.

He said the firm would pay hosts a minimum rate of about 10 euros a night and cover cleaning and fees for up to two months.

More than 2,000 homeowners and 180 doctors and nurses signed up within days of the launch, he said by phone.

Europe’s largest hotel group Accor said on Tuesday it had created a platform to offer housing to medical staff, and would offer up to 2,000 beds in 40 hotels for the homeless.

Such measures will be even more pressing as the virus digs into poorer countries where densely populated slum neighbourhoods create ideal conditions for disease transmission.

“COVID-19 is likely to spread at an even faster rate in informal settlements than elsewhere and with more disastrous consequences,” Farha said via WhatsApp.

“A ‘stay at home’ policy fails to recognise the conditions in informal settlements that make staying at home just as deadly, if not more, than no policy at all,” she said.

(Reporting by Zoe Tabary @zoetabary in London, Thin Lei Win @thinkink in Rome, Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi in Tbilisi, Annie Banerji @anniebanerji in Delhi and Jillian Kestler-D’Amours @jkdamours in Montreal, editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

Homeless shelters, programs ill-equipped for coronavirus, U.S. cities warned

By Carey L. Biron

WASHINGTON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Homeless people in the United States are at particular risk of contracting coronavirus, and the systems that care for them are poorly equipped to handle a major outbreak, according to public health experts.

The United States had more than 750 confirmed cases of the respiratory virus – which emerged in China’s Hubei province late last year – as of Tuesday morning and 26 related deaths, as estimated by a national tally kept by Johns Hopkins University.

The count could rise sharply as testing increases this week. More than 110,000 people have been infected globally and about 4,000 people have died, according to a Reuters tally of government announcements.

Fears have been raised that the U.S. homeless population – nearly 600,000 people in 2019 – could be particularly vulnerable to the disease, which spreads primarily through tiny droplets coughed or sneezed from an infected person and inhaled by another.

“For the general public that contracts this virus, they’re told to quarantine, rest and recuperate at home,” said Barbara DiPietro, senior director of policy at the National Health Care for the Homeless Council (NHCHC), a nonprofit.

“What does that mean if you don’t have a home or a service provider who can accommodate them 24/7?,” she said.

Vigilant hygiene can prevent transmission, health experts say, in what could be a challenge for people living without homes.

Los Angeles lawmakers are considering setting up washing facilities in encampments, while county officials in Seattle have purchased a motel and set up modular housing, in part to quarantine homeless individuals who contract the disease.

There have been no reports of coronavirus among U.S. homeless populations.

The U.S. shelter system is ill-equipped to deal with a major outbreak, with most housing open only at night for sleeping and little room for quarantines, DiPietro said.

“We don’t have a homeless services infrastructure that is equipped, funded or staffed to be able to respond to a pandemic public health emergency,” she added.

Concerns about the potential for homeless populations to spread coronavirus have cropped up on social media and among conservative commentators who see homeless encampments ripe for spreading the disease.

But G. Robert Watts, an epidemiologist and head of the NHCHC, downplayed the concerns as “fearmongering”.

Because they often have weakened immune systems, “people experiencing homelessness are at greater risk of contracting this disease than of passing it on,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Several of the U.S. coronavirus cases have been in the states of Washington and California, which have among the highest homeless populations in the country.

Last week the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development released extensive new guidance on dealing with infectious disease outbreaks in shelters, encampments and among homeless populations in general.

Also, President Donald Trump on Friday signed an $8.3 billion emergency bill to fight the virus, with $100 million for community health centers that NHCHC said could include homeless services.

Looking ahead to potential dangers, cities and homeless services providers are adopting a spectrum of new strategies for dealing with the outbreak.

“We are developing special protocols such as phone screening for patients calling into our primary care sites, education to prevent the spread of illness and support for our staff,” said Rachel Solotaroff, head of Central City Concern, a nonprofit in Portland, Oregon.

Some shelters are starting to assign people to sleep in the same beds every night to limit the potential for exposure, said Watts.

But homeless people get help from a host of service providers from shelters to food pantries, day centers and outreach teams, all of which are often pressed for resources and left out of response plans, DiPietro said.

A lack of resources could lead any of those to turn away anyone with potential symptoms that are not necessarily coronavirus, triggering a “vast increase” in homeless people with nowhere to go, she said.

(Reporting by Carey L. Biron @clbtea, Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Zoe Tabary. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

Fire in Minneapolis leaves 250 homeless on Christmas Day

By Steve Gorman

(Reuters) – Fire swept a hotel apartment building that provides transitional housing for the poor in downtown Minneapolis early on Wednesday, leaving about 250 people homeless on Christmas morning, city officials said.

No deaths or serious injuries were reported in the four-alarm blaze. Three residents with minor injuries were taken to a hospital for evaluation, and several others were treated at the scene for smoke inhalation, officials said.

The fire erupted before dawn on the second floor of the three-story Francis Drake Hotel before spreading to the third floor and attic area of the brick building, city Fire Chief John Fruetel told reporters outside the complex.

The cause was unknown, Fruetel said, adding that he expected it would take fire crews until Thursday to fully extinguish the blaze.

Television news footage showed flames leaping through the roof amid thick smoke as firefighters poured streams of water onto the burning structure.

“I would estimate that the building is going to be a total loss,” assistant fire chief Bryan Tyner told Minnesota Public Radio News.

With temperatures hovering just above freezing, the city immediately brought in transit buses to provide emergency shelter and warmth for displaced residents, Mayor Jacob Frey told a news briefing, adding that municipal agencies were working with the American Red Cross and other authorities to provide food, longer-term shelter, clothing and other needs for the evacuees.

“These are people’s lives, this is their home. They’re concerned about everything from a wallet or a phone so they can get in touch with a loved one on Christmas, to where are their babies going to get formula,” Frey said, choking up with emotion.

The Francis Drake, which opened in 1926 as a luxury hotel later converted to residential units, provides overflow shelter space for homeless families, as well as temporary lodging for individuals who lack permanent housing in Minnesota’s largest city, municipal and county officials said.

Drake Hotel resident Jason Vandenboom said he was awakened by his wife when fire alarms sounded and he ventured out of their unit to see “a guy coming down the hallway, just pounding on the doors, saying, ‘There’s a fire, we gotta get out of here.'”

Gazing out to another wing of the building, “I saw flames shooting at least about 10, 15 feet (3, 4.5 meters) up,” he told CBS affiliate WCCO-TV. Vandenboom said he then ran back to his room and told his wife, “‘Yeah, we gotta go now.’ … It was bad.”

(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Culver City, Calif.; Editing by Leslie Adler and Sandra Maler)

U.S. Supreme Court leaves in place ruling barring prosecution of homeless

By Andrew Chung

(Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday rejected a bid by Boise to overturn a lower court’s ruling that prohibited authorities in the Idaho city from prosecuting homeless people for staying outside if a bed at an emergency shelter is not available.

The justices left in place a ruling by the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that fining or jailing homeless people for sleeping in public or unauthorized places violates the U.S. Constitution’s bar on cruel and unusual punishment, a decision the city said threatens public health and safety.

The case centered on two Boise ordinances that prohibit camping or “disorderly conduct” by lodging or sleeping in public. The city said it needed to enforce the ordinances to prevent the formation of encampments that can lead to unsanitary conditions and crimes such as drug dealing and gang activity, and to keep public spaces accessible for residents, visitors and wildlife.

The dispute began when six people – Robert Martin, Robert Anderson, Lawrence Lee Smith, Basil Humphrey, Janet Bell and Pamela Hawkes, all current or former homeless Boise residents – sued the city in 2009, arguing that the laws violated their constitutional rights.

They had each been prosecuted under the ordinances and fined between $25 and $75. Five were sentenced to time served, while Hawkes twice served one day in jail.

The 9th Circuit last year ruled that the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment prohibits punishing homeless individuals if there are more of them than available shelter beds. The ruling allowed the plaintiffs to seek an injunction against enforcement of the city’s ordinances.

“As long as there is no option of sleeping indoors, the government cannot criminalize indigent, homeless people for sleeping outdoors, on public property, on the false premise they had a choice in the matter,” the appeals court said.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)

New Jersey mayor sues New York City over moving homeless with ‘offer they can’t refuse’

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Newark Mayor Ras Baraka’s administration has sued New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, accusing the fellow Democrat of dumping his city’s population of homeless people on New Jersey’s biggest city.

The lawsuit naming the city of New York, its mayor and his homelessness czar, Steven Banks, accuses the de Blasio administration’s Special One-Time Assistance, or SOTA, program of using strong-arm tactics to send people across the Hudson River to find a place to live.

“This case concerns an unlawful program of ‘coerced’ migration,” Newark lawyers say in court documents filed in U.S. District Court in New Jersey on Monday.

New York City officials are accused of “forcing SOTA recipients to accept the proverbial ‘offer they can’t refuse,'” the documents said, explaining that the phrase from the 1972 American Mafia film “The Godfather” is “really a command, ‘Do what we say or else.'”

The lawsuit accuses New York of violating federal commerce laws. It cites several former New York shelter residents who were hustled through tours of New Jersey apartments and pressured to quickly commit to one, with the SOTA Program paying landlords a full year’s rent up front.

“She was told by case managers in her shelter that she should look in New Jersey, in the cities of Newark or Paterson, because New York landlords were leery of the SOTA program and because she would find something quicker in New Jersey,” Newark’s lawyers said in court filings.

The de Blasio administration did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Baraka, Newark’s mayor since 2014 and the son of poet and African-American activist Amiri Baraka, and de Blasio, a former Democratic presidential candidate who touts himself as a progressive, appeared together in Newark last year to announce a tenant initiative aimed at keeping people in their homes, in part by ending illegal evictions. The New Jersey program was modeled after one in New York City and both mayors praised one another for pursuing the initiatives.

The vast majority of New Yorkers experiencing homelessness – over 63,000 homeless men, women and children – spend the night instead within the city’s shelter system where they remain unseen, according to The Bowery Mission nonprofit group. In a city of 8.5 million people, nearly one in every 121 New Yorkers is currently homeless.

(Reporting by Barbara Goldberg in New York; Editing by Scott Malone and Jonathan Oatis)

Chicago’s cold blast spells concern for the city’s homeless

Chicago’s cold blast spells concern for the city’s homeless
By Brendan O’Brien

CHICAGO (Reuters) – Homeless advocates in Chicago were closely monitoring wind chill temperatures on Tuesday as an early season blast of arctic air swept across the eastern two-thirds of the United States.

The city of Chicago, where 86,000 homeless people live, opened its six warming shelters over the last few days as unseasonably cold temperatures dipped into the teens with wind chills into the single digits during the morning, according to the National Weather Service (NWS).

“It’s incredibly concerning that we are experiencing this level of cold this early in the season,” said Doug Schenkelberg, director of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.

The NWS said the Chicago metro area along with many major cities in the Midwest and East Coast and across the South would experience numerous record lows for a Nov. 12 or 13, with temperatures averaging 20 to 30 degrees below normal.

“It’s significantly earlier than we normally would see a change in the jet stream,” said Ed Shimon, a NWS meteorologist. “We actually have a cold front already blasting down to Florida and off the Gulf Coast … so records are being broken all over the place.”

The bitter cold prompted Cornerstone Community Outreach, on Chicago’s North Side, to place cots in its dining room to accommodate the influx of homeless people a month earlier than it usually does each winter.

“We have seen an uptick of people coming,” said Sandra Ramsey, executive director of Cornerstone Community Outreach. “From the looks of it, it spells out that we will have a long winter.”

Ramsey said she was worried about the homeless people who suffer from mental illness and refuse to go inside, opting to live under viaducts and in alleyways even amid deadly cold.

“It takes time and relationships to get these people … to come in on terribly cold nights,” Ramsey said. “But then they go back out.”

About 16,000 people sleep each night on the Chicago streets and shelters, Schenkelberg said. He added that the key to dealing with homelessness in extreme weather conditions ultimately is finding permanent supportive housing for the homeless.

“It’s never an easy time to be homeless regardless of the weather and when you add extreme weather like this into the mix, it makes life that much more difficult for people experiencing it,” he said.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Chicago; Editing by Frank McGurty and Tom Brown)

Living on the edge in the homeless encampments of Los Angeles

Living on the edge in the homeless encampments of Los Angeles
By Alex Dobuzinskis

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – After years on the street, Kimberly Decoursey spends her nights at a Los Angeles temporary housing site called the Hollywood Studio Club. But by day, she can still be found at a highway off-ramp with her homeless fiance and a less rule-bound street community.

Decoursey, 37, who grew up in foster homes, considers the friends who have shared her struggles on the streets of Los Angeles to be her family. She wants them to enjoy what she has now: a bed, regular meals and a shower.

“A lot of them would give their right arm to be inside,” Decoursey said of her comrades inhabiting grimy tents pitched on dirt patches in the Hollywood section of Los Angeles.

Yet only a fraction of the estimated 36,000 homeless in Los Angeles have been housed three years after voters in November 2016 approved a ballot measure that raised $1.2 billion to build housing for street denizens and poor people.

The sheer cost of building permanent homes with social services in one of the priciest real estate markets in the United States is one of the biggest obstacles. There is also opposition from homeowner groups to building such homes in their neighborhoods.

Some homeless people have their own apprehensions about living among strangers and having to follow rules in shelters.

The first project funded by the ballot measure to provide permanent homes with on-site social services is scheduled to open only by the end of the year, officials said.

The problem is growing. Homelessness spiked by 16 percent in January 2019 compared with the previous year, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority said.

The homeless have set up tents on sidewalks and in neglected corners of nearly every section of the nation’s second-largest city, from wealthy Bel-Air to working-class San Pedro.

Republican President Donald Trump on a visit to California in September said people living on the streets have ruined the “prestige” of Los Angeles and San Francisco and suggested the possibility of federal intervention. That same month, the Democratic-run Los Angeles government petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to ask for legal power to forcibly sweep homeless encampments off the streets.

SOFT COSTS

It costs $531,000 per unit to build permanent homes for the homeless under Proposition HHH, the $1.2 billion bond measure approved by voters three years ago, the Los Angeles Controller’s Office said in a report released in October.

High real estate prices – the median value of a home in greater Los Angeles is currently around $650,000 – were only partly to blame, Controller Ron Galperin said in a telephone interview. The biggest financial drains were “soft costs” such as architectural design fees, permitting and inspections.

“These days, to get almost anything built in Los Angeles you need a small army of lawyers and lobbyists,” Galperin said.

The city’s plan to put homeless centers across the metropolitan area sparked a backlash from some residents concerned it could depress real estate values. In the wealthy, beachside neighborhood of Venice, where the median home price approaches $2 million, some residents have gone to court to oppose a homeless center.

On-site facilities to assist the homeless – medical clinics and office space for case managers and social workers – are another cost-driver, city officials say. Those services average $7,000 per unit per year, to be borne by Los Angeles County government.

People coming off the streets have a lot of needs, homeless advocates say.

Like Decoursey, 15 percent of homeless adults were once in foster care, according to the Homeless Services Authority.

A report released this month by the California Policy Lab in Los Angeles, which crunched survey data from 64,000 single adult homeless people across the country, found half of them reported suffering from some combination of physical, mental and substance abuse conditions.

In Los Angeles County, the mortality rate among homeless people has increased for the last five years, with more than 1,000 dying in 2018 from such causes as heart disease and overdosing on drugs, according to the county Department of Public Health.

While shelters have traditionally forbidden drug and alcohol use, officials have begun dropping sobriety requirements for supportive housing, under a model called “housing first” that has been used in Canada and other parts of the United States.

Los Angeles had already built some permanent housing units with support services even before the infusion of $1.2 billion from Proposition HHH. They fill up quickly and generate long waiting lists, city officials said.

NO PETS ALLOWED

Kenny Miles Bard, 61, who was living in his sedan parked on a hilly street in Hollywood, said he did not like the rules or his companions at a shelter he once tried.

“Out here you’re more in control of your own destiny, so to speak, and if there are people you don’t want to be around, you don’t have to be around them,” he said. “You go somewhere else.”

Such reluctance to stay at a shelter is shared by a portion of the homeless population, said Benjamin Henwood, an associate professor of social work at the University of Southern California.

“If the choice is to go into a shelter, they might say ‘no thank you’ because a shelter can be a place where you can get robbed or assaulted or woken up at certain times or have to go to bed at certain times,” he said. “If you actually offer them a private space of their own, the majority of people will take you up on that offer.”

One in seven homeless people in Los Angeles, however, has a pet and may be reluctant to part with it, Henwood said.

One non-profit in Los Angeles, People Assisting the Homeless, is making the shelters it operates more welcoming by allowing pets for emotional support and stepping up security so residents’ possessions are not stolen, said its associate director, Jesus Torres.

At the Hollywood tent encampment, Decoursey, who said she previously battled a cocaine addiction and has been homeless on and off for much of her adult life, mentioned a “street dad” and other transients she considers brothers, sisters, nephews and cousins.

“The circumstances out here are dangerous,” Decoursey said as she scanned her longtime encampment. “The sooner we all can be housed, the better.”

(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Dan Grebler)

India floods kill more than 270, displace one million

FILE PHOTO: Rescuers remove debris as they search for victims of a landslide caused by torrential monsoon rains in Meppadi in Wayanad district in the southern Indian state of Kerala, India, August 10, 2019. REUTERS/Stringer

By Gopakumar Warrier and Rajendra Jadhav

BENGALURU/MUMBAI (Reuters) – Floods and landslides have killed more than 270 people in India this month, displaced one million and inundated thousands of homes across six states, authorities said on Wednesday after two weeks of heavy monsoon rains.

The rains from June to September are a lifeline for rural India, delivering some 70% of the country’s rainfall, but they also cause death and destruction each year.

The southern states of Kerala and Karnataka, and Maharashtra and Gujarat in the west, were among the hardest hit by floods that washed away thousands of hectares of summer-sown crops and damaged roads and rail lines.

At least 95 people were killed and more than 50 are missing in Kerala, where heavy rainfall triggered dozens of landslides last week and trapped more than 100 people.

About 190,000 people are still living in relief camps in the state, said Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, but he added some people are returning home as floodwaters recede.

In neighboring Karnataka, home to the technology hub Bengaluru, 54 people died and 15 are missing after rivers burst their banks when authorities released water from dams.

Nearly 700,000 people have been evacuated in the state.

Heavy rainfall is expected in parts of Karnataka, Maharashtra and Gujarat, as well as the central state of Madhya Pradesh, in the next two days, weather officials said.

In Maharashtra, which includes the financial capital Mumbai, 48 people died but floodwaters are receding, said a state official.

“We are now trying to restore electricity and drinking water supplies,” he said.

In Madhya Pradesh, the biggest producer of soybeans, heavy rains killed 32 people and damaged crops, authorities said.

In Gujarat, 31 people died in rain-related incidents, while landslides killed nearly a dozen people in the northern hilly state of Uttarakhand.

(Reporting by Gopakumar Warrier and Rajendra Jadhav; Editing by Euan Rocha and Darren Schuettler)

And then there was light: Cardinal breaks law to restore power for homeless

FILE PHOTO: Konrad Krajewski, seen in this November 15, 2013 photo at centre behind Pope Francis, has drawn the ire of Italy's anti-immigrant interior minister by climbing down a manhole and breaking the law to restore electricity to hundreds of homeless people living in an occupied building. He is now a cardinal and runs the Vatican office that distributes the pope's charity funds. The picture was taken when he was an archbishop, at the Vatican. REUTERS/Tony Gentile/File Photo

By Philip Pullella

ROME (Reuters) – A close aide to Pope Francis has drawn the ire of Italy’s anti-immigrant Interior Minister Matteo Salvini by climbing down a manhole to restore electricity to hundreds of homeless people living in an occupied building.

Cardinal Konrad Krajewski, 55, whose job is to distribute the pope’s charity funds, went to the disused state-owned building near a Rome cathedral on Saturday night and broke a police seal to re-connect electrical circuit breakers.

To some, he was a hero of sorts by Monday morning as the news went viral. Rome’s left-leaning La Repubblica newspaper ran a banner headline calling him “The Pope’s Robin Hood” and praising him for doing the right thing under the circumstances.

“What can I say? It was a particularly desperate situation. I repeat: I assume all the responsibility. If a fine arrives, I’ll pay it,” Krajewski said in an interview in Corriere della Sera newspaper on Monday.

The building has been occupied since 2013 by Italians who had lost their homes and migrants. It houses some 450 people, including about 100 children.

It had been without power since May 6 because some 300,000 euro in electricity bills had not been paid.

“Defending illegality is never a good sign,” Salvini, who has often clashed with the pope on migration and other social issues, told reporters on Monday.

“There are many Italians and even legal immigrants who pay their bills, even if with difficulty. People can do what they please but as interior minister, I guarantee the rules.”

Krajewski, who rides around Rome on a bicycle, said he would pay the building’s electricity bills from now on but that for him, the issue went beyond money.

“There are children there. The first thing to ask is ‘why are they there? What is the reason? How is it possible that families are in such a situation” he told Corriere.

Krajewski, a Pole, was already a minor celebrity in Rome. Since the pope named him to the Vatican charity job in 2013, he became known for dressing down into simple layman’s clothes at night and bringing food the city’s homeless in a white van.

He was also responsible for opening shelters near the Vatican were the homeless can wash, get haircuts, and receive medical care.

(Reporting By Philip Pullella; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)