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Some 5 million out of 60 million Italians are living in poverty, according to the Italian National Institute of Statistics. Along with Rome, Milan has the highest concentration of homeless people in Italy, at least 3,000 by most counts. Vito Anzaldi, a former maintenance worker, used to be one of them.
When he became unemployed, things went downhill so much he found himself sleeping on park benches. A turning point arrived when he became a street vendor for the Italian publication Scarp de’ tenis (“Tennis Shoes”). Founded in 1994, Scarp de’ tenis employs some 130 vendors across about a dozen Italian cities, roughly half of them in Milan. The publication is partially funded by the Catholic charity Caritas.
As Italy copes with an economic recession and a populist government whose policies may harm more than help its homeless population, the role of organizations like Scarp de’ tenis may become even more important. Mr. Anzaldi now lives in municipal housing and has found purpose as well as a steady if modest income with the publication. He says, “The act of selling this newspaper saved my life.”
Vito Anzaldi, a stocky Sicilian who made a living doing maintenance and an array of jobs for a multinational in Milan, melted into homelessness slowly. Things went downhill in the late 1980s after he became unemployed.
Initially he had enough savings to survive a few years. He owned four apartments in and around Milan. That became two apartments, one to live in with his family, the other to rent for income. Financial pressure widened the cracks in his marriage.
“When the money goes down, the fighting goes up,” Mr. Anzaldi explains over coffee. “One regular day of our usual quarrels and craziness, I lost my mind. I took the car and left home. I had €300 ($340) in my pocket.”
Unable to find work, Mr. Anzaldi began sleeping on park benches or in his car, reserving €50 so he could afford gas to get to work if a job came up. “For three years I became invisible,” he says.
His turning point arrived when he became one of dozens of street newspaper vendors who turned their lives around selling the Italian publication Scarp de’ tenis (“Tennis Shoes”). “The act of selling this newspaper saved my life,” he says after a weekend of sales outside churches in February.
Along with Rome, Milan has the highest concentration of homeless people in Italy, at least 3,000 by most counts. Some 5 million out of 60 million Italians are living in absolute poverty, according to The Italian National Institute of Statistics (ISTAT).
“Homelessness is on the rise because the situations that create homelessness are on the rise,” says Roberto Guaglianone, who coordinates street sales at Scarp de’ tenis. Italy slipped into an economic recession at the end of 2018.
The number of working poor, he notes, is likewise growing. “They are going to the [charity-run] food tables to eat. They might just be able to pay rent, but they don’t have enough to cover food.”
Founded in 1994, Scarp de’ tenis employs some 130 vendors across about a dozen Italian cities, roughly half of them in Milan. The publication — which derives its name from a song by Enzo Jannacci, one of the founders of Italian post-war rock and roll — is partially funded by the Catholic charity Caritas.
Scarp de’ tenis carefully selects its vendors, drawing on recommendations from Caritas and the municipality. They privilege those who have found some kind of shelter and avoid those who engage in substance abuse.
Most vendors are Italians like Mr. Anzaldi or Anna di Toma, a 62-year-old from the southern Italian city of Apulia who plunged into poverty after divorcing and discovering that she was considered too old to enter the workforce.
Each copy sells for €3.5, of which the vendor keeps €1. The rest is reinvested in production. “Salvation,” stresses the editorial team, comes from the “dignity of work.” Journalists provide content pro bono, and vendors can also share their own personal stories under their own byline.
“The goal is to have a social impact not only on the lives of the vendor, but also in the heads and the hearts of people around them,” says Mr. Guaglianone.
Populist policies: boon or bane?
Italy never fully recovered from the 2008 global economic crisis and is now in recession, which set the stage for the rise of the right-wing League Party and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement. Together they govern Europe’s third-largest economy.
Charity workers fear that populist policies will make the battle against homelessness harder. They point to the Decree-Law on Immigration and Security, championed by far-right League leader and interior minister Matteo Salvini, which abolished humanitarian protection for migrants ineligible for refugee status. This is leading to the closure of shelters and putting more people on the streets.
“We have estimated that in the next few months, as a result of the Salvini decree, about 800 migrants will become newly homeless and end up on the streets of Milan,” says Pierfrancesco Majorino, alderman of social policies in Milan.
The Five Star Movement is offering a “citizenship income,” a monthly benefit of up to €780 euros ($885) that aims to bring folks into the labor market by requiring some training and active job-seeking. It will be offered to Italian nationals, EU citizens, and longtime residents who are living below the poverty line.
Skeptics worry this measure may not be effective in bringing people into the labor market and instead stress the importance of widespread job creation. Critics also warn it leaves out the most vulnerable, the homeless, by including a 10-year minimum residency requirement.
“The new law wanted to exclude the foreigners,” explains Stefano Lampertico, head of Scarp de’ tenis. “When you end up on the streets, you lose residency. And when you lose residency, you lose all your rights. As a result, many come to charities like Caritas, which offers anagraphic residency,” adds Mr. Lampertico, referring to symbolic rather than physical residency.
‘It is difficult for anybody.’
Of course, homelessness is a multifaceted problem demanding diverse solutions. Lack of documentation is a major problem for foreigners. For Italian nationals, it’s economic and personal challenges, like broken marriages, addictions, and health issues.
Milan plans to open four assistance centers where individuals can apply for residency to allow a larger share of the homeless to get basic benefits such as identity documents and health cards.
Roman Gianpiera and Walter Scarabella, a couple who met outside Milan’s central station and spent years sleeping in stationed train cars, say they are among those who would be left out in the welfare system overhaul.
They live in a village of prefabricated housing but are itching to get out. “If they don’t find a solution for us soon, you will read about it in the newspapers,” says Mr. Scarabella, who had a stroke last year.
It’s difficult to get a job in Italy even under the best circumstances, says Mario Furlan, founder of City Angels, an Italian charity that offers professional training. “The real challenge is to help those who can work to find a job,” says Mr. Furlan. “It is difficult for anybody.”
Mr. Anzaldi, who now lives in municipal housing, feels fortunate to have a steady if modest and variable income with Scarp de’ tenis. While he has developed the courage to tell his story to congregations and children, he has yet to share that painful chapter with his daughter who still blames him for his three-year absence.
“Shame kills,” he says.