[Hpn] Italian Street Newspaper Illustrates True Meaning of "Self Help" fw

Tom Boland wgcp@earthlink.net
Sat, 23 Sep 2000 18:26:27 -0700 (PDT)

FWD  22 Sep 2000 [great article on HOMELESS MUTUAL AID PROJECTS in Italy]

CC REPLIES TO "Piazza Grande" <PG@piazzagrande.it>,

     Our homeless hosts at Piazza Grande have requested that we ask our
homeless (and formerly homeless) readers and writers to respond to this
article with their opinions, suggestions, stories, etc. The object is to
learn from each other. The unique aspect of Piazza Grande's programs is how
they have been organized from the bottom up, rather than the top down. How
do you think this would work in the United States? Do you know of any
programs here that work that way? Send your responses by email to
<pg@piazzagrande.it> or mail comments to Street Light c/o Inner Truth Books,
3506 Adams Ave., San Diego, CA 92116 and we will forward them.

This is (c) Anne Curo. Please ask permission for any significant
modifications; otherwise this is freely available to Street Papers.


	by Anne Curo <forest@cts.com>

     In Bologna, Italy the concept of "self-help" among homeless people
surpasses anything seen here. Homeless people take leadership roles in an
organization which publishes and distributes their own street newspaper,
runs their transitional shelter and outreach teams, and creates entry-level
jobs, workshops and transitional housing. Piazza Grande (the big plaza) has
been in operation since 1993 when their first project, a street paper of
that name, was started by homeless people in a city shelter.
     Street Light had the unique opportunity to represent the United States at
an international conference in Bologna organized by Piazza Grande in
September to exchange ideas. Their organization is facing a crisis with the
withdrawal of government support brought on by a new right wing city
administration; if they are to continue at their present level of services,
they'll need to approach the private sector for help, as our non-profits do.
     Social services in Italy are administered in a different way than in the
U.S. Although basic welfare laws have been outlined by the national
government since the end of the 19th century, their funding and
administration have been assigned to the autonomous cities. Bologna is a
prosperous, politically left-leaning city in the center of northern Italy's
Emilia-Romagna district, with a population of under half a million. Strong
labor unions and a "communist" city government have kept poverty and
absolute destitution at a minimum since the end of World War II. But this
is changing.
     People still fall through the social safety net. A city residency
requirement involving an official ID has created an obstacle for a small
(compared to the U.S.) transient population. In Bologna, as well as other
Italian cities like Florence and Pisa, this is being addressed by groups
like Piazza Grande, making it possible for people without a street address
to obtain an ID. Six months of residency is the minimum requirement to
qualify for city services.
     Although the Italians are generally not physically or culturally
vulnerable to alcoholism, there are a few who become homeless from that
disease. But the biggest drug problem there is heroin. Approximately 60% of
the homeless population (mostly youth) are affected by this epidemic. Drugs
like amphetamines and crack cocaine are virtually unknown in Italy,
however. And marijuana isnít even considered a problem drug.
     An estimated 1,000 Italians are homeless in Bologna, with an additional
estimated 2,000 immigrants from the Baltics, Albania, North Africa and
other neighboring crisis countries. Italy has fairly liberal immigration
and amnesty policies, so separate agencies are set up to deal with this
population. A vast, unguarded coastline permits the arrival of "boat
people" whom the Italians call "Gypsies," although they may not be of the
Romany culture. Their habits of aggressive begging and thievery have
created a backlash of public resentment against the homeless. This, and the
influence of right wing American social and economic philosophy are
resulting in a more punitive climate of public opinion, and are affecting
government policy toward the homeless population in general.
     We obtained most of the above information from our interpreter, Paolo
Barnard, who is one of the three non-homeless members of Piazza Grande's
seven member board of directors. He told us that Bologna has always been a
safe city, until recently, where people could leave their cars unlocked.
There still is no violent crime to speak of, although there has been a rise
in burglaries in the last three years caused by the influx of "Gypsies"
looking for gold and cash.

Annual Fair is Political Forum

     The occasion for the conference was Bologna's annual fair, sponsored by
the Democratic-Socialist ruling party of Italy. It is held on permanent
fairgrounds on the outskirts of town, similar to San Diego County's Del Mar
fairgrounds. It features restaurants, displays, vendors and entertainment.
But, unlike in an American county fair, the biggest and most well-attended
attractions are the forums and discussions on all political subjects. On
the night the Italian Prime Minister was scheduled to speak, the crowd
swelled to record numbers. Italians are highly politicized, especially in
     Piazza Grande runs a large, successful concession which provides drinks
and entertainment at the fair. It is staffed by its homeless members with a
great deal of enthusiasm. My first night there, I had my first direct
experience with Bologna's "Gypsies." I'd been seated alone at a table and
treated to an aperitif while I waited for a group to be rounded up for
dinner and discussion. I was approached by two pretty little girls about 9
or 10 years old holding their hands out begging pitifully. I reached into
my wallet and awarded each a coin worth about 50 cents.
     But they were not satisfied! They pressed closer on either side uttering a
barrage of languages, wheedling, badgering and begging. Holding up a
newspaper in front of them to hide the fact that they were groping toward
my pocket, which held my wallet, and my backpack at my feet, they wouldn't
take "no" for an answer. Finally, I was rescued by one of the staff who had
noticed and come over to run them off. This was a rather frightening
     After that, I was cautious about beggars. But I was aggressively
panhandled only about two or three more times during the week. A few
passive beggars station themselves in front of churches with a bowl or hat
to collect contributions, but begging didn't seem to be as widespread in
Bologna as in San Diego. Once, while being driven by one of our hosts, we
were approached by a window washer, but he was not persistent.
     Only once was I approached by an alcoholic panhandler. He was in front of
a church with his large bottle of wine in plain sight. (There are no open
container laws in Italy.) He was happily drunk and pestering everybody for
a handout. But he was content with the 1,000 lira coin (50 cents) I gave
him. Most of the passersby tried to ignore him. By contrast, the street
vendors of Piazza Grande I encountered were courteous and restrained.
City Provides Rent-Free Facilities for Homeless Run Programs
     The first day of the conference featured a tour of Piazza Grande's
facilities, which are housed in vacant city-owned buildings provided
rent-free for homeless use. But it was explained that that policy has been
changed with the change in government. One of their transitional shelters
has already been closed, resulting in the "disappearance" of 15 homeless
residents. The remaining shelter which we visited was opened in 1995 during
an unusually severe winter in which eight homeless people died in Rome.
This caused a national outcry and politicians reacted and provided funds to
associations like Piazza Grande all over Italy.
     Piazza Grande was given an abandoned gym for this shelter, called
Frattelli Rosselli. It houses up to 50 people in two dormitory rooms -- one
large room for single men, a smaller for women and couples. The residents
are required to leave during the daytime for work or to hang out at a
nearby city-run day center. But it is kept open during the day for anyone
from the streets who would like to take a shower and clean up. (The city
also runs a hostel which provides emergency beds only for up to 15 days.)
     In the dormitories, each person's area is personalized with their own
private possessions, and people can stay here up to three years. There is
little problem with stealing, because of peer pressure. The rules posted on
the wall are devised and enforced by the residents. For example: no alcohol
or drugs; no noise; TV off at 10 pm; lights out at 11 pm; time of entry and
exit is set depending on the season; coffee machine is on at 4 am. The most
interesting rule is that a resident can lose his bed if he is absent for
three days in a month (without extenuating circumstances). This seemed very
liberal compared with San Diego shelter policies.
     The residents have chores for which they are paid a small stipend; these
include keeping their own area clean. The homeless outreach teams are also
paid for their work. The teams consist of people in the program, who go out
and contact their peers still living on the streets to offer them help.
They may hand out blankets, food, drinks, medicine and help them obtain the
necessary city IDs. According to Massimo Zaccarelli, a founding homeless
Piazza Grande member and president of the cooperative, an important feature
of all their programs is that "people are seen in collaboration, not as
people to be helped." The city has been (so far) prevented from closing
this shelter by a court injunction.
     As we walked the block to the city day center I was told about the NIMBY
(Not In My Back Yard) factor. Yes, the neighbors are pressuring the city to
close the shelter. But the day center is a nice place. Though it's a city
service, no city ID is required. It's for people over 18 years of age, but
they don't check, in fact, they might look the other way if a 16 or
17-year-old came in. The center is open seven days a week from 12:30 to
6:00 year round. They serve between 80 and 110 people per day, many of them
heroin addicts. In 1999 a total of 1087 individuals were served.
     About 40 lunches per day are brought in to be given to people with food
tickets. (Unclaimed lunches are given out to those in need who don't have
tickets.) The main room has about 25 tables, and it was filled with people
peacefully eating lunch, playing cards and chess, or reading. A separate
room is for TV viewing. People can get job referrals and help with resumes
there, and use the phone for job contacts. They can get referrals for drug,
medical or psychiatric treatment on request, all at the city's expense.
Free coffee is always available.

Donated Warehouse has Many Uses

     From the day center, we were driven to Piazza Grande's warehouse in
another part of town. This facility, too, is at risk of being withdrawn. It
is a large old warehouse which had been abandoned. When I entered, I
realized that what they had created was a thrift store, not unlike our
Goodwill Industries. They pick up donated furniture, books, clothing,
household items and fix them up for sale to the public. It is staffed
entirely by members of their program, who are completely in charge.
     The authority and decision-making capacity of the homeless staff members
was illustrated in an incident I witnessed. My host, a homed board member,
offered to let me take a gift from the thrift store. I was admiring a small
figurine. The homeless manager said he couldn't give me that because it was
a collector's item that he could sell for a good price. My host disagreed,
but deferred to the manager's decision. Later, I was presented with a gift
picked out by the manager -- a nice little linen table cloth.
     A large section of the warehouse is given over to the bike shop where
donated bicycles and mopeds are rebuilt and sold or rented to the public.
In Bologna as many people ride to work on bikes and mopeds as use (small)
cars, so it is a large, successful business. All the money raised by these
enterprises goes to Piazza Grande's programs and to pay the workers a small
stipend. Without the burden of killer rents like we pay in San Diego, this
is possible.
     For a while Piazza Grande tried a project recycling paper, cardboard and
metal at the warehouse, but this was not profitable. A successful project
that has not been repeated was an outdoor summer jazz festival on the
grounds of the warehouse two years ago. This attracted a large number of
guests and served more as a consciousness raising cultural exchange than a
money maker.
     After we'd been shown around the warehouse facilities, everybody sat down
to lunch at tables which had been decorated with nice tablecloths, and
delicious food was brought in from a nearby restaurant. Our meal was
followed by a more formal discussion of Piazza Grande's accomplishments and
     The shift of city government to the right has given a shot in the arm to
the organization. "The repression of government is a stimulus to fire
back," someone said. Things will never be as easy as they once were. The
new mayor has created the position of Security Chief with a new security
council to "control" the homeless population. (This is apparently not a
responsibility of the police, as in San Diego.) They are hiring
"vigilantes" to chase away homeless people. An incident occurred while I
was in Bologna that caused outrage and sympathetic coverage in the daily
paper. A tiny homeless woman was beaten by one of these security guards and
brought to court. The judge took one look at her and dropped charges
against her, but charged the guard with assault.
     Piazza Grande would like to start a legal clinic to deal with violations
of human rights on the streets. They would also like to start a medical
clinic for homeless people with emphasis on foot care. Medical care is
available, but it's been observed that the homeless have particular
problems with their feet, including gangrene resulting from going barefoot
in winter. (The climate is fairly mild, but it does get cold and snows
occasionally during the winter; it resembles San Luis Obispo more than any
other region in California that I have observed.)
     To implement these projects and also to maintain the level of service
already attained, Piazza Grande is applying for a grant from the European
Union which has a social services fund. They are mystified as to how to
approach business corporations for money, because they feel business
perceives homelessness as an unglamorous charity. The Catholic churches
(which are most numerous) already sponsor their own soup kitchens and

Another Italian City is Heard From -- Florence

     Interesting for comparison was a report from Mariapia Passigli
representing the six-year-old street newspaper Fuori Binario (Out Of The
Railway) from Florence, Italy -- a city about the same size as Bologna and
the seat of the neighboring region of Tuscany. Their paper was also started
by homeless workers in a city-run hostel. But the municipality gave no
physical space. They applied to city agencies and got no help. When they
managed to get a place, a citizens committee was formed to make a NIMBY
fuss. Florence's government is more conservative than Bologna's, and the
city itself is a highly attractive tourist destination. (Bologna's medieval
walled city contains awesome architectural, artistic and historical
attractions, but is maintained more as a city for its residents!)
     Fuori Binario has tried for two years without success to create a day
center for their homeless population, because the restrooms in the city are
for tourists and charge a fee which homeless people cannot afford. (The
public restroom in the city hall of Bologna is free and staffed by members
of Piazza Grande! It is clean and well maintained and may be used by
tourists and homeless alike.) In Florence, the political will is becoming
more oppressive toward the homeless. But they have had some success in
obtaining resident IDs for homeless people, which are required to obtain
any city services. So far, 1,500 people in Florence have been issued
resident IDs without an address. There are an estimated 2,000 homeless
people in the city of Florence.
     That evening, the only other delegate from America arrived. (Others had
been invited, but couldn't come.) Jan Bernstein from Silicon Valley (San
Jose) California works with a non-profit called InnVision which provides
emergency shelters, transitional housing and services for the growing
homeless population of the area. We got acquainted during a lavish
restaurant meal and a late-night political forum at the fair. She became my
roommate and a very congenial tourist companion during the remainder of our
     At the forum and during meetings the next day our brains were picked
regarding conditions in the United States. Silicon Valley is probably the
most extreme example of a community affected by the "New Economy." A
proliferation of highly paid, high tech jobs in the electronic industry
juxtaposed against low income service sector jobs, illustrate the growing
income gap. A severe shortage of affordable housing is creating a
population of working homeless. I was also asked to share what I know of
San Diego's homeless situation, and felt somewhat like a reverse ambassador.
     The final day feelings were running high because an Italian-American was
about to be executed in Virginia. The Italians were bewildered at the
barbarity of the situation. Nevertheless, we were again treated to a lavish
lunch and more forums on homelessness in Italy and Europe.

Homeless Members Share their Stories

     The conference ended with moving testimonials from two hard-core homeless
men who are presently involved in Piazza Grande's programs:
     Marione (Big Mario) told us that he is 51 years old and has been on the
streets for 32 years. He takes full responsibility for the fact that he
spent time in jail and has been a drug addict and alcoholic. He has one and
a half years left of a probation period. "I couldn't have made it without
Piazza Grande," he said. "I arrived in Bologna in 1995 and was lost. I
heard of Piazza Grande and started as a vendor. Right away, I experienced
self-empowerment and moved on to participate in discussions and debates and
became a founder. I feel Piazza Grande belongs to me. Piazza Grande is not
a beginning or an end, it's a transition."
     The most empowering aspect of Piazza Grande is being able to share his
experience with others from the streets. He feels his experience can be
helpful to others "no solo mio" not just me. "I hope that you in America
will import this aspect of Piazza Grande into the U.S. Piazza Grande is a
lighthouse. The process is like learning to sail with no captain and no tug
boats," he said.
     Tonino said, "My experience is similar to Marione's, but more dramatic. I
started as a vendor. I thought I would never be able to go public with my
experiences. When I found I could use my experience to help others approach
Piazza Grande, I was amazed. To me, it seems logical that there shouldn't
be obstacles. But the reality is, we have to hang tough and fight to
maintain (our programs). I hope we can network across the ocean to help
each other."
     There is a general fear among members of having to go to the private
sector for support. "According to the Italian private sector, we are the
dirty ones."


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