Our empirical results for Milan provide evidence on the importance of a residence certificate for improving the lives of homeless people and the crucial role services may play in improving the registration process. Our qualitative research findings supplement and enhance these results by providing further valuable insights from the perspective of service providers.
The changing face of homelessness in Milan: who are the residence seekers?
It is interesting to note that, according to the service providers’ point of view, the Milan's homeless population asking for the residence certificate mostly includes people with a history of long-term unemployment and foreign nationals, who cannot renew their residence permits due to recent legal restrictions.
Interviews with service providers revealed that the characteristics of homeless people asking for residence registration continue to change over time. Although profiling homeless people is not simple, services providers agree with the perception that Milan’s homeless population does not match traditional stereotypes.
“Although most of them are so-called ‘traditional’ homeless people—single men living in extreme social marginality, an increasing number of them are families with dependent children.”—Respondent 1
About 36 percent of homeless people who applied for a residence certificate were Italian (Table 3), while the highest proportion included foreign nationals from outside the EU. “The irregular status of foreign nationals could be a reason for homelessness per se” (Respondent 2). Foreign nationals are usually people who come from Southern Italy, where they first arrive from their country of origin. “When they arrive in Italy, they often have a resident permit. Then they come to the north seeking a job, and they often live together in one apartment” (Respondent 3).
Some foreign nationals arrived in Italy without a residence permit (i.e. for work or family reasons, or to study) and then faced difficulties related to Italy’s immigration legislation.
“When they no longer have the possibility of renewing a residence permit, they easily fall into a cycle of difficulties, such as finding a regular job. They rely on precarious work situations, which makes it difficult to pay a regular rent or, in many cases, have a stable home.”—Respondent 6
One example comes from the story of Mohammed, described here by a service provider:
“He was one of the first people hosted here. He was born in 1941 and was an acrobat in the circus for about 20 years in Italy, where he arrived as a regular immigrant in 2000. He worked in circuses in Italy and Europe with a residence permit, but he didn’t think about his future. When he turned 59, the circus told him: ‘It was nice, but we don't need you anymore, it is over!' He had paid some contributions for the pension off and on. When he stopped working, he lost his residence permit, and he had no savings or a pension. He started drinking and living on the street before we took him in, and he died here of a heart attack. He was one of us, in short.”—Respondent 3
Traditional homeless people who “usually show anti-social behaviours, severe mental disorders, and alcohol addiction” are a residual part of the group of individuals using low-threshold services and asking for the residence certificate, which is mainly composed of those who “usually have a low level of education and a long experience of unemployment” (Respondent 2). Respondents noted that there is generally a progressive path of self-deterioration as “it is rare to meet a person who became homeless from one day to the next” (Respondent 2). The process is slow. It may start with repeated periods of unemployment, often followed by a disruption in family ties and separation, which leads men out of the house and onto the street. However, before arriving on the street, some “reached out to their peer group first, sleeping on their sofa or in their car. Very often, they start to abuse alcohol as a coping mechanism” (Respondent 2). Before accessing social services and starting the process of residence registration, homeless people draw from their own resources (money, family, friends, etc.) and only ask for help from low-threshold services as a last step. As a result, service providers perceive that “those who arrive are surely already ‘selected’ and will have a new chance of exiting from homelessness” (Respondent 2). Heroin addiction, however, has re-emerged in Italy, “especially among adolescents, who often leave their family home to live on the street” (Respondent 2).
Finally, low-threshold service providers have noticed that those asking for a residence certificate are also people who cannot show a rental or ownership address, such as abusive occupants or irregular tenants who do not necessarily live on the street or sleep in public dormitories.
“They may even be the 85 percent who apply for a residence certificate. They might be a normal employee—with precarious and low-income jobs—who cannot afford regular rent but who do not belong to the homeless group. This group does not necessarily use low-threshold and first aid services, but they might need it, for example, for a discount for their kid’s school canteen or to get a family doctor.”—Respondent 2
Barriers to residence registration
According to interviews with service providers, there are three main barriers to accessing a residence certificate: cognitive factors, fear and mistrust, and social stigma. For foreign born individuals, residence permit is also a prerequisite to residence registration.
Service providers report how homeless people often do not know that the possibility of being registered exists. Often, they “are so tested by life that they do not even rise from where they are” (Respondent 3). Service providers noted that homeless people do not know or understand the real importance of having a residence:
“Most of them think their residence is the place where they live. They think they don’t need it, since cities like Milan offer a lot of services—mobile units that take you to eat, dress, visit canteens, or access the surgeries of the ‘Opera San Francesco’ where you can have all the visits and medicine for free.”—Respondent 2
Not everyone can grasp the fundamental need for documents as tools for transformation. “Although they may have the documents, they can lose them, and so they have to redo the process again and again” (Respondent 1). Indeed, to apply for a residence certificate “[…] you have to get active and go to a public office, in an institutional context. You have to choose to do things, and so the choice is to take that first step. You have to want change” (Respondent 1).
Some cognitive factors push homeless people to act and transform their lives; other times, people take action because of a relationship.
Fear and mistrust
Another barrier to registration relates to psychological aspects, such as discomfort and mistrust, that homeless people may experience. As one service provider noted, “They don’t consider recognition by the City to be important, as they feel abandoned by the society” (Respondent 5). Service providers expressed widespread feelings of mistrust, “especially towards municipal social services, as homeless people think they don’t do enough to help them” (Respondent 2). Foreign nationals may avoid residence registration, fearing they will not be allowed to stay in Italy and face deportation when their residence permit expires.
Therefore, “a long relationship” with services is the only way to “inspire trust and lead to a residence certificate” (Respondent 3). Service providers’ work is based on relationships. For example:
“Being able to solve problems, such as legal situations, leads users to change their perspective about society, to understand that problems can be solved, that difficult situations can be overcome, that not everything is lost but that there is a possibility to get your hands on the problems, to face them with someone who can help.”—Respondent 5
For service providers, building a relationship is not always easy and it is often not clear where the service’s efforts will lead; however, respondents acknowledged that support could help people to leave the streets.
“Luigi had a job in Germany, but he had failed. He spent some time in a jail, then he arrived in Italy and he was with us for a month or two. Then he disappeared, and we never saw him again. After a few months, we got a postcard from Dubai from him saying ‘Thanks for what you did.’”—Respondent 3
Finally, social stigma can destroy relationships and distance homeless people from those who could help or give them support (Respondent 5). When homeless people come from safe, normal conditions but unexpectedly find themselves in situations of absolute poverty and indigence, “there is then a social stigma that characterizes their relationships, which leads them to distance themselves from friends and family members who no longer want to give support. They find themselves alone and lonely, which is probably the real reason that leads them to homelessness” (Respondent 5). Social stigma enhances loneliness and may be a major barrier toward residence registration. Indeed, homeless people may experience negative judgement from other people—as though they were to blame for their homelessness. This may encourage them to avoid social relationships and become as invisible as possible. Fewer social interactions limit their chances of building trusting relationships with service providers and starting the process of residence registration. In addition to facing stigma about being homeless and foreign, foreign nationals in Italy are also often single individuals arrived in Italy alone and lack support from their families of origin living abroad.
Practical advantages of a residence certificate
Despite the barriers, service providers recognized that beyond a desire to be registered, homeless people also seek residence registration as an opportunity to access material benefits.
Economic and housing benefits
The economic benefits of registration include reddito di cittadinanza, or citizenship income, social security services, and a home.Footnote 22 Indeed, to apply for inclusive income support and casa popolare, or public housing in Milan, a person must have been a resident of Lombardy region, of which Milan is the capital.Footnote 23
“Since the job market is completely closed to homeless people—who might have mental diseases, addictions, or who might behave antisocially—they survive thanks to assistance measures. This is their main motivation for applying for a residence certificate, as a way to escape from homelessness.”—Respondent 2
Free legal assistance
Based on the experience of service providers, homeless people also apply for a residence certificate to obtain free legal assistance in case they need a lower rent, which is particularly important for foreign nationals.
“Following the adoption of the Security Decree, there was a significant increase in users who visited our branches to deal with this type of issue. They required support both in dealing with illegitimate expulsion measures, or even trivial delays in the execution, resolution, or conclusion of related immigration procedures. Our service involved offering practical support by accompanying them to the proper authorities, the police, or the prefectures, as the case may be, to try to unblock regularization procedures.”—Respondent 5
Ability to receive mail
In addition, we found that the ability to receive mail plays an important role in the desire to obtain a residence certificate, among other things.
“Receiving mail is something we take for granted, although it is fundamental to maintaining relational, work, and family ties. Without an address to receive mail, it is impossible to receive institutional correspondence, such as a new document, a copy of an identity document, a ballot, or a health card.”—Respondent 5
Correspondence is an important topic, especially for those with disabilities because “[…] receiving pensions and economic support for a disability requires a residence because they require documented proof about interactions with officials, visits, and examinations” (Respondent 5).
In most cases, there is a specific event in a person’s life that reveals the urgency of being registered. More specifically, it is likely that people discover the concrete advantages linked to a residence certificate in a condition of need, such as a serious illness. Under normal conditions, “they do not really need a residence certificate to access health care” (Respondent 4) as first aid and emergency services are guaranteed. However, they need a residence certificate to get a family doctor who can prescribe medication.
Residence registration may be the first formal step toward better living conditions for homeless people. It is the key path toward several services and opportunities that may help people overcome the hardships of living in the street. However, as we have seen, it is not only a bureaucratic procedure, but much more an existential path. “When one is on the street, it’s another world. On one hand, he has finished fighting. On the other hand, he needs endless strength to fight, because living on the street is particularly hard” (Respondent 3). Service providers build relationships using professionalism and empathy to gradually follow and support people, as the process may take several meetings.
“You walk him slowly through the residence registration. You make him see another possible world, another perspective, another way to enrich his life. For example, he may realize that income can be interesting, or that registration is important because then he will have access to a doctor. It's a different worldview.”—Respondent 3
Impact of COVID-19 on residence registration and services
The outbreak of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and the associated COVID-19 pandemic quickly spread across the globe, and several countries adopted lockdown and physical distancing rules. Italy, and Milan in particular, were strongly affected by the pandemic in terms of cases and death rates.
The pandemic made life even more difficult for the homeless population. Many services for homeless people were closed due to restrictions imposed by the government and their fragile routine was destroyed. In such situations, interpersonal relationships may deteriorate, create distrust in people or institutions, and cause people to feel abandoned by society. Although new services were developed in Milan to cope with the unexpected situation, even low-threshold services had trouble tracking and supporting homeless people during lockdown, with people forced to stay at home.
Although the pandemic temporarily blocked the registration process, services never stopped. Instead, they adapted to the emergency. For example,
“Only half of the public showers have been opened, and new a health service has been provided for temperature detection. We had to put chemical toilets on the streets, because people can no longer use the bathrooms in bars. In addition, municipal services have increased food distribution using mobile units, although the standard procedure was to lead people to canteens and not feed them on the street. They used a building with 48 apartments to help homeless people with symptoms quarantine.”—Respondent 1
Other services switched to an appointment model or shifted their work to remote assistance since they could not receive homeless people physically. However, the biggest problem was the dispersion of homeless people and the loss of contacts among them. Physical distancing measures, including closing dormitories or day centres, spread homeless people out over the national territory (Respondent 5).
“It was dramatic because it led to detachment among homeless people. The protection network is mainly linked to associations, but also to residents in the neighbourhoods where they usually spend the night. COVID-19 led to the disintegration of these networks. Many homeless people were displaced and got lost. Where we once had stable places with fixed hours that allowed people to freely access our services, with the lockdown we were no longer able to reach them.”—Respondent 5
Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic revealed the need for greater social and health services integration, especially for people living on the streets, who face many difficulties in taking medication, accessing medical care, and attending medical surgeries (Respondent 1). Low-threshold services in Milan also had to deal with cases of positive individuals with symptoms, for whom it was difficult to understand and respect the quarantine and movement restrictions. For example, “many people who tested positive for COVID-19 were young riders who make a living delivering meals, foreign nationals, and former refugee applicants” (Respondent 2). Another service provider added, “they are scared. They still struggle to understand why we need to do these things, how to use the devices, or why hygiene is such an issue” (Respondent 1).
Overall, the greatest risk was losing people with whom the service providers had built solid relationships. For example, one respondent noted:
“Leonardo is Italian. He is 60 years old and has been in our dormitory for 15 years. With the lockdown, he was not able to stay with us, without going out. After 15 years, we lost him. We wondered if he was dead. We looked for him also at the Musocco cemetery, at Campo 87, where there are hundreds of graves. We made an announcement to find him. Finally, we found him at the hospital. He was infected with COVID-19 and he had been hospitalized for a month.”—Respondent 3