Crumbling under the weight of poverty

Charity groups take the strain of increasing poverty in Italy

One Italian family in five is poor while one in 10 lives in absolute poverty including almost 1.5million children. These are the numbers from the last report by Istat, Italy’s national statistics bureau, for 2013. The data reveals the disastrous current situation in Italy.

Italy’s unemployment rate is currently 12.6% – for young people it is an eye-watering 43.3% – while the average annual net salary is at just €14,870.

For the six million people forced to live in absolute poverty, it means they can’t afford enough goods and services to live a dignified life. More and more Italians have begun to turn to charitable organisations.

Worsening situation

The Community of Sant’Egidio in Rome has, since 1968, offered free food to poor families and individuals. Trying to get an authentic impression about the situation in this place, I interviewed Augusto D’Angelo, Professor of Contemporary History at Rome’s La Sapienza University and manager of the Sant’Egidio soup kitchen. He told me that requests for food is constantly growing from Italians, not just immigrants: every evening 1,000 people crowd the soup kitchen, more than one third of them Italians. The number of Italians using the service has trebled in just two years.

Prof. D’Angelo told The Irish Catholic that “since the beginning of the new millennium we have had more old people who have a poor pension and, to survive, they decide to eat at Sant’Egidio because they don’t have enough money”.

“Recently, we began to receive kids too, sometimes families bring them here for dinner, because they can’t afford expenses or grocery shopping,” he added.

“It is evident that the situation is getting worse, especially if we compare today to 30 years ago when we went every night around Termini railway station to bring assistance to the poor.

At that time we used to give 80 sandwiches, two for each person, now we bring 500 sandwiches only around the station and 3,000 in the city.”

New requests

Recently, Sant’Egidio has had to change to satisfy new requests from the struggling poor. People who lose their jobs now come to Sant’Egidio to find help searching for work and for someone who can help them prepare a curriculum vitae. At the same time, many people faced with homelessness seek help finding accommodation.

To guarantee the continuity of the service, the community does not close during the traditional Italian summer holiday month of August because “poverty does not take a holiday” as Prof. D’Angelo says.

Another big homeless shelter in Rome is run by Caritas, the charitable arm of the Italian Bishops Conference which promotes charity amongst Italian Catholics.

For many years, Caritas operated from Rome’s Termini station where it became a focal point for people arriving in Rome in need of support. However, in 2012, the charity moved to a new structure not far from the station with 188 beds for homeless people. In the same area, there is also the Casa Santa Giacinta, a home for elderly people, and the ‘Emporio’, a sort of supermarket for poor families with specials and low prices.

For a better explanation of the Caritas services in Rome I met Luana Melia coordinator of the Don Luigi Di Liegro soup kitchen. She believes that accommodation is the most pressing problem, and more urgent than food.

Every evening, up to 500 people go to the Caritas soup kitchen for dinner. According to Ms Melia, many of the service-users suffer from mental illness and she has noticed an upsurge in jobless people in their 40s and 50s who are searching for support.

The situation is dramatic and seems to be infinite and virtually impossible to manage for any government. In the meantime, however, one family in five lives in poverty, the number of unemployed people continues to grow and young people who can leave do. It’s a bleak picture and a far cry from the romantic idea of Italy as the Bel Paese.