Can virtual addresses provide a gateway to the rights of homeless people in Italy?
[This article was originally published on 14 April 2021.]
As lockdowns were introduced across Europe at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the critical importance of the right to housing and its link to health and safety have become clearer than ever. For many homeless, however, this remained a distant privilege.
Before the pandemic, Anna and Marco (their real names), a young Italian couple from Bologna, both had jobs and housing. But after being sacked from their jobs due to the lockdown, they could no longer pay their rent and joined the estimated 50,000 people defined as homeless living across Italy. In March 2020, a strict stay-at-home order was introduced across the country, with police issuing fines to anyone found outside their home without a valid reason. Anna and Marco decided to seek help at a Caritas shelter just outside Bologna, where couples were accepted. Along the way, they were arrested and fined by police for breaking lockdown rules.
“How can a homeless person stay at home? asks Antonio Mumolo, president of Avvocato di Strada (which means “Advocate of the streets”), an Italian NGO that offers free legal protection to homeless people in Italy.
Mumolo and a colleague took charge of Anna and Marco’s case. Following Avvocato di Strada’s appeal, the Bologna prefect overturned the fines on the grounds that the couple’s actions were legitimate.
Anna and Marco weren’t the only homeless people fined during the pandemic. “Other than fines, the problems facing homeless people have not changed from before,” says Mumolo. Divorces, evictions, limited access to social services, administrative deadlocks due to the lack of a registered address – all of which are legal problems that Avvocato di Strada has faced since its founding – have only been amplified by the additional pressure from the pandemic. “If anything, there is more poverty,” says Mumolo.
Born from a “great hunger for rights”
The history of Avvocato di Strada dates back to 1993, when Mumolo volunteered on the streets of Bologna, Italy, helping the city’s homeless population. A nighttime outreach worker, Mumolo was a notary specializing in labor law by day. During his evening shifts, as he handed out hot food and blankets, people asked him for legal advice on a host of different issues. “I realized that in the streets there was also a great thirst for rights,” says Mumolo.
Requests ranged from advice on fines and evictions to employment issues, but one often seemed the most urgent: the lack of a registered address and the associated administrative repercussions. It is estimated that a third of homeless people in Italy do not have access to an address even if a registered address is a gateway to the fundamental social rights enshrined in the Italian constitution. Without one, a person cannot register as a general practitioner, cannot vote, cannot renew an identity card and, most importantly, cannot access basic social services or legal services funded by the. State.
The loss of a registered address follows a typical pattern, explains Mumolo. “A person is evicted and ends up on the street. Someone else moves in and takes over the address. Once the “commune” (the municipal administration) realizes that its registers need to be updated, it deletes the old civil status registers and, in effect, “cancels” those which do not. have no new fixed address. “People become invisible and cannot get off the streets,” he emphasizes.
Mumolo decided to put his legal expertise to good use and started helping homeless people by creating Avvocato di Strada and representing those whose access to legal advice has been through their administrative status. At first he started with a single colleague. Then, from a small helpdesk in Bologna, the organization quickly grew in number and scope. Almost 30 years later, Avvocato di Strada is present in 55 Italian cities, with 1,075 lawyers. “We are the largest law firm in Italy,” jokes Mumolo.
Virtual addresses, real obstacles
Via Mariano Tuccella in Bologna is a street that does not exist physically. Nor Via Modesta Valenti in Rome. These are two virtual addresses, named after two homeless people who died on the street. More than 200 municipalities across Italy have set up virtual streets that are territorially non-existent, but equivalent in legal value, to open the door to fundamental constitutional rights for people who do not have a permanent address.
Although there are differences in scale and form, the idea that homeless people need a temporary address to help them access their social rights is not unique to Italy. In Belgium, since 1997, homeless people can register with a so-called ‘referral address’ with the support of the Public Center for Social Protection, and in the United Kingdom, ProxyAddress runs a pilot program which allows homeless people to “borrow” the address of a vacant property for up to six months to enable people to access essential supports and services.
However, not all Italian municipalities are willing to establish virtual addresses. Research conducted by Avvocato di Strada in 2019 shows the many obstacles facing homeless people. For example, of the 302 municipalities surveyed, 175 did not give any details to Avvocato di Strada when asked about their address procedures. Some did not even answer the phone, a vivid example of how frustrating it can be for homeless people to open a channel of communication with institutions.
Homeless people then face additional hurdles when trying to establish a virtual address, such as requests from the municipality for proof of income or ID, which some people may not be able to access. . When a homeless person reports to the civil registry, it sometimes happens that they are not even offered the necessary documents to initiate a domiciliation request.
This is where Avvocato di Strada comes in. Sometimes the process of registering a virtual address is very simple: the mere presence of a lawyer is enough to trigger the bureaucratic machine. Other times, Avvocato di Strada is forced to take legal action against the municipality.
“G. walks around the city service offices, full of unnecessary bureaucracy, without being able to obtain a domicile, one of his essential rights,” recalls a volunteer from Avvocato di Strada. “He was really exhausted. and discouraged when he came to see us. “However, in no time, volunteers helped him get a virtual address.” Once again, he has the right to vote, to access medical care.
In another example, a homeless asylum seeker with a chronic, life-threatening illness struggled to get treatment. Like so many other people living on the streets, the only place Mohamed could access health care was in the accident and emergency department, which meant his diabetes often went untreated. When volunteer Olivia first met him, Mohamed had just applied for political asylum but still did not have a registered address. “He was very worried that he would not be able to get enough insulin,” recalls Olivia. “After a long bureaucratic process, Mohamed obtained an address and his insulin. “
Problems amplified by the pandemic
The fifth panorama of homelessness in Europe, produced by the Pierre Abbé Foundation in France and the European Federation of National Organizations Working with the Homeless (FEANTSA), shows that over the last decade, the social composition of the homeless population in Europe has changed. It is no longer predominantly made up of single men, but now also includes elderly people of all genders whose pensions are too low, deportees, people who have lived through divorce, working poor and migrants excluded from access. social services.
The coronavirus pandemic has only amplified the problems homeless people already face and is likely to increase the number of rough sleepers in Europe due to soaring unemployment rates. In Italy, an increase in the number of people facing absolute poverty – up to one million according to a recent study by the Italian National Institute of Statistics – means that similar changes are occurring there.
In addition to pre-existing issues of poverty and housing exclusion, homeless people have been more exposed not only to increased health risks from Covid-19, but also to fines related to the lockdown.
When other cases similar to Anna and Marco’s were reported to Avvocato di Strada, the NGO wrote to the prime minister, regional governors and local mayors, asking them not to impose fines on those without. accommodation but to give them access to shelter and a doctor. “If you don’t do it out of solidarity, do it out of selfishness,” says Mumolo, “because when a person gets sick, they become a vector of infection for everyone.
Avvocato di Strada has won all of the fine cases it has challenged since the lockdown began. Not because the lockdown fines are wrong, but because in cases like Anna’s and Marco’s, law enforcement doesn’t understand the circumstances (i.e. rough sleepers cannot abide by the lockdowns because they don’t have a home to “lock up” in).
Reintegrating the homeless into the socio-economic fabric of the community at large, as well as guaranteeing everyone access to health care and housing, is the ultimate goal of Avvocato di Strada and its sister associations in across Europe. “With targeted social strategies, we can end homelessness,” says Mumolo. But first, “you need a lawyer to help you get off the streets,” he says.