Would you like to give us a short presentation of Avvocato di Strada Onlus and its activities?
Avvocato di Strada Onlus is a project that was set up in Bologna in 2000, in response to a need that was felt to be increasingly pressing, namely that of guaranteeing qualified legal support to homeless citizens who were (and still are) deprived of their fundamental rights because of their condition.
In 2007, the association “Avvocato di Strada – Onlus” was created. Over time, it has developed into a network of free of charge legal counselling centres for those living on the streets.
At the end of 2019, the association counted already over 1,075 volunteers (lawyers, law students and others, pensioners and ordinary citizens): we are the largest law firm in Italy and, at the same time, the one with the lowest income.
The mission of our association, according to its statute, is to pursue aims of social solidarity in favour of disadvantaged people. We promote free legal judicial and extrajudicial assistance to those people through 55 legal desks distributed throughout the country. In the Veneto region, there are currently legal desks in Padova, Rovigo, Treviso, as well as in Venice and Verona.
Besides our main activities, the association carries out several initiatives aimed at promoting the protection of fundamental human rights as well as the social and cultural integration of disadvantaged people and migrants.
It also provides legal trainings and refresher courses in collaboration with other organisations, like associations and universities.
The Padua branch has been active since 2004 and currently counts 31 lawyers, 15 law practitioners, 5 social workers, 10 law students and 2 psychologists. Here in Padua we work in collaboration with two other associations, Granello di Senape and La Strada Giusta, with whom we work on different “secondary” activities: awareness-raising campaigns in schools, conferences and webinars, as well as more informal activities, such as the rights festival “Right2cityFestival” and the Rights Dinner.
What makes a lawyer a “street lawyer”?
There is a sentence in the book “Street Lawyer” by John Grisham that says it all: “First of all, I am a human being. Then, a lawyer. It is possible to be both.” In my personal opinion, this sentence explains quite well what being a “street lawyer” means: our volunteers are people who have decided to defend the rights of the underprivileged being aware that this, after all, would mean protecting everyone’s rights.
The lawyers and volunteers of Avvocato di Strada basically make their professionalism available to all those people who would otherwise have no way of defending their rights.
In practice, this is done by meeting the people in the places they frequent and live, gathering their needs during individual interviews and only then providing them with the legal assistance they need. The Padua desk, for instance, operates at the diocesan Caritas office on Monday afternoons and at the Popular Kitchens on Thursday mornings.
Your activity could be seen in the context of the UN SDG 1, which is related to the fight against poverty. How is the situation in Italy in this respect?
Yes, definitely. What we aim to do is to remove those barriers that prevent people from accessing basic services, helping them to get back to a dignified life.
Let’s consider the typical user of our association: an homeless person.
Often we do not realise the consequences of not having a home, we do not consider how this lack can make the difference between a life on the street and a dignified one.
Moreover, we often don’t even realise how easily someone can become homeless: you lose your job, you can’t afford to pay a few months’ rent or a few mortgage payments, and unless you have a solid network of friends and relatives, ending up on the street is the next step.
In this respect, little or even nothing has been done in Italy in recent decades. On the contrary, in some cases the legislator has even made the loss of residence ‘easier’. Consider the so-called Lupi Decree of 2014, with which anyone occupying a property without a permit was excluded from residency; another example is the more recent Salvini Decree of 2018, which prohibited the ” concession ” of residence to asylum seekers. It is often more a necessity to rely on the support of individual local administrations.
Even the most recent economic support measures (such as the basic income or even the shopping vouchers during the Covid-19 crisis) have almost always excluded homeless people.
Who are your visitors? Have you observed a change in your users over time?
From 2001 to the end of 2019, Avvocato di strada has dealt with 38,478 people assisted, and the trend shows that the numbers are growing year by year. This increase is not only thanks to the increased number of branches with which we are able to reach a wider pool of users, but, unfortunately, also because in our country poverty has become a deep-rooted, systemic reality.
In line with previous years, the majority of our clients are male (71.2%) and are from non-EU countries (59.1%), whilst EU citizens account for 7.3%.
Among the countries of origin of the users, Italy is the most represented with 33.6% of the cases.
These percentages have changed very little over the last fifteen years.
This year, a total of 3,988 files were managed at national level, while in Padua the average is around 320-340 users per year. The number has increased compared to 2018: we have been observing for some time now, from year to year, an increase in cases. Certainly, on the one hand, the new territorial offices allow us to carry out increasingly widespread interventions in the area, but on the other, we believe that this increase reflects the fact that poverty, far from being eradicated, is an increasingly deep-rooted reality in our country.
When the association’s activities began, the homeless were people who were extremely poor and who often had physical or psychological problems. Over time, the target group has diversified and now there are people who have become poor and who would have never thought they would find themselves homeless: businessmen and small craftsmen in financial ruin, people over 50 who have lost their jobs and, unable to find another one, have used up their savings and ended up on the streets, elderly people with minimum retirement pensions who are unable to pay rents, divorced parents who are unable to find accommodation, people who cannot rely on a family support network.
On a national scale, have you found differences in requests or cases followed based on where the requests come from?
There are common struggles on a national level (the right to residence, civil registration, fictitious street, appeals against fines for begging), but then each individual desk deals with peculiar issues related to the territory and the socio-political sensitivities of the various public administrations.
In your experience, can poverty have a negative effect on the exercise of one’s rights? If so, in what terms?
Our experience is particularly related to homeless people, they live in a kind of invisibility condition and this prevents them from being able to redeem themselves socially in some way. Poverty often entails the loss of residence: being evicted or leaving home for various reasons means being removed from the registry lists.
The loss of residence means the inability to enjoy a series of social rights and basic services.
Since there is no longer a municipality of competence, the homeless person cannot obtain an identity card, and this absence of documents entails, for example, the inability to validate a signature on a contract, whether for work or for rent.
A homeless person cannot access the National Health Service, except within the limits of emergency, nor can he or she receive a pension.
Without a residence, one cannot register in an employment center, nor be assigned a social worker, since there is no competent municipality.
If you don’t have a residence you are cancelled from the electoral rolls and cannot vote.
Without the residence – and this is the reason why our association was born – you can’t even access legal aid. And therefore, paradoxically, those who have fewer rights than everyone else cannot even take legal action to claim them.
What does Avvocato di Strada do to fight poverty? And what can we all do?
Besides dealing with individual cases, it tries to operate a constant monitoring of national and local policies on poverty, and it does so by using a tool that is very powerful: the law; because here we are not talking about welfare interventions or handouts but, simply, about helping everyone to get what they are entitled to.
Let’s think about one of our historical battles: the registration of people who otherwise, without a home, could not have a residence, also through the establishment of a fictitious street in the municipalities.
We started from the law: our system recognizes registration at the municipal registry office as a subjective right (not granted) for all citizens who have the right to do so (excluding foreigners not regularly residing in the territory). Our commitment is aimed at ensuring that the homeless can, therefore, establish residence in the place of their domicile (i.e. in the municipality where the person actually lives and, failing that, in the municipality of birth) or establish residence in a fictitious street (a street that does not exist in the territory but which is recognized as having the same legal value).
The registration of the homeless people in the registry of the population residing in a municipality allows not only to promote the link of the individual citizen with the territory, but also to know the real characteristics of the population present on the national territory (the municipalities highlight the position of the homeless people in the National Index of Registries and this information is stored in the Register of the homeless which is owned by the Department for Internal and Territorial Affairs – Central Directorate for Demographic Services at the Ministry of Interior) as well as, of course, to give the individual the opportunity to access the rights recognized only to those who have a residence.
As for what each of us can do, the first step is to be aware that the enemy that needs to be fought is poverty and not the poor, and to understand that, in order to do this, one of the ways is to help people get off the streets and out of situations of marginality. Perhaps it would be enough to start by asking ourselves the very question you asked us, namely “what can I do?”: this is where the unstoppable begins.
Have you seen an increase in requests for help due to the Covid-19 crisis?
It’s too early to talk about data, but this crisis has brought us face to face with evidence, paraphrasing the words of our National President, crises, when they are as serious as the one resulting from the Covid 19 emergency, hit the poor twice. It is not true what has often been said in recent months, that Covid would be a “democratic” virus: those who are poorer are much more exposed to the disease and, obviously, much less equipped to overcome it.
In recent months we have dealt with situations that have shown that the protection of the last and the fight against poverty is still far from being defined as a won battle, in particular some homeless have been sanctioned for not having obeyed the order to “stay at home”, as if not having a home is a fault, a voluntary choice.
Being homeless has not allowed and does not allow these people to have a general practitioner of reference, which seems paradoxical if we look, all the more reason, to this particular historical and social moment in which the health of the individual contributes to consolidate a public health.
These logical-legal distortions are precisely those that we are committed to fighting, through our advocacy activities.
What is your superpower? And, if you could have another one, which one would you choose?
The truth is that we don’t have any superpowers; in the end, each volunteer uses therir time and expertise for the common good.
To answer the second question, perhaps the only superpower we would want is to be able to leave no one behind.