Thomson Reuters Foundation

A tiny Italian charity is dreaming big after its prototype for a foldable cardboard tent for the homeless went viral online - with the unwitting help of a local far-right politician.

From Japan to Ireland, hundreds of organisations have enquired about the tent designed to keep rough sleepers warm during cold winter nights, since the group posted a video of a handout earlier in January, the charity said.

Homeless tent

Activists handout foldable cardboard tents to homeless people in Naples, Italy. PICTURE: Courtesy of Napoli 2035.

"We didn't expect to draw so much interest. We just wanted to show some solidarity," said Giuseppe D'Alessandro, the tent's designer who co-founded Napoli 2035, a non-profit to help homeless people, with four friends in 2017.

Across Europe, many countries have seen the number of homeless people increase since the 2007 financial crisis amid austerity measures and rising housing prices. There are an estimated 4.1 million homeless people in the European Union.

Made of recyclable cardboard and plastic, the waterproof tent folds like an accordion into a portable backpack, said its creator, who invented it during his design studies in 2017.

D'Alessandro has only built a few dozen models that have been distributed to homeless people around Naples.

The initiative went viral this month after Napoli 2035 posted a Facebook message in response to the deputy mayor of Trieste, in northern Italy, who sparked national outcry by bragging about throwing away a homeless man's "rags".

Paolo Polidori of the anti-immigrant League party, had boasted online about binning the man's belongings to send a message of "zero tolerance" against decay in the city.

"In Trieste, the deputy mayor throws a homeless man's blankets in the bin. Here in Naples we are trying to write a different story," the group wrote on 5th January, sharing a video of activists handing out tents.

The clip has since been viewed more than 95,000 times, gaining widespread coverage in national media eager to show Italy's more benevolent face.

Napoli 2035 has received requests for thousands of tents in a few days, mainly from charities in other Italian cities - but also with calls coming in from Germany and further afield, D'Alessandro said.

"We want it to spread out across Italy and Europe," the 30-year-old told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

It might take some time for that to happen as the group is yet to come up with a large scale production plan for the model it named Scorz - Neapolitan for skin.

The design won praise from Mario Furlan, head of the Italian homeless charity City Angels, who added tents could be no substitute for long-term housing and employment policies to help people off the street.

More than 50,000 people do not have a roof over their head in Italy, according to the national statistics agency, ISTAT.