A journey into the night reveals the rise of the ‘new poor’ in Milan

Published: 29 January 2013 15:06 CET

By Michele Novaga, Italian Red Cross

They meet at 8.30pm in the headquarters of the Italian Red Cross branch in Milan. Staff and volunteers involved in the ‘La CRI per i clochard’ (the Red Cross for the homeless) project are ready to go out into the city to bring clothing, comfort items and support to people sleeping rough. They have done it every day for 12 years.

After loading up clothes, sleeping bags, blankets, cookies and flasks of hot tea, they head into the night.

The first stop is via Larga, where they find Enrico, a neat-looking and well-dressed 66-year-old man. Red Cross volunteer Marco, who has been involved in the project for years, says its not easy to approach him. With a degree in classics, Enrico ended up in the streets after the death of his mother. “The most complex challenge with homeless people, once we have approached them, is to establish long-term contact and assist in their reintegration into society, in cooperation also with a network of organisations working with homeless people,” Marco says. “Sometimes we succeed, but it is rather complicated.”

Alberto Bruno, former President and Commissioner of the Italian Red Cross branch in Milan says that until recently, people like Enrico were the most common type of beneficiary. “One would end up in the streets after a bereavement or a nervous breakdown, or would be driven out of the family because of alcohol abuse or gambling,” he says.

Now, though, the organization is seeing a new situation; people who, as a consequence of the economic crisis, are pushed to the edges of society. These are the so called ‘new poor’.

The journey continues onto Corso Vittorio Emanuele, where the group meet Antonio, who found his life changed after divorce. “I had to leave our house to my wife and, according to the law, keep up with alimony payments. I simply cannot afford to pay for another rent,” he says.

Divorce is a common cause of homelessness, with many men continuing to work, but sleeping in the Terminal of the Linate Airport. They arrive at night, well-dressed, with a suitcase containing their belongings. They sleep on the armchairs, keep warm in the lounges and have access to water for washing in the toilets. The morning after, they head into work as if nothing happened.

Next, staff and volunteers move on to Piazza Affari, near the Stock Exchange. Stefano is 36 years old, and from Brianza, in Lombardy. After losing his job, he ended up spending his nights in the centre of Italy’s financial world. “To me, never having slept in the streets, this place looked like an ideal place. And it has now been my home for 18 months. I would like to start a normal life again and come back to my work,” he says.

The rise of the new poor is well-known to the Italian Red Cross branch in Milan. For many years now, thanks to a partnership with the EU, and in cooperation with the Agency for Payments in Agriculture, the organization has distributed food to 50,000 people each month. However, this does not cover all the families that need assistance – there are 150,000 in Milan alone – as the economic crisis continues to bite.