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More Than Just a Home

Our legal fellow Sara Masetti, a volunteer in Avvocato di Strada, writes about the housing problem in Italy and the legislative that shapes it, the specific Italian context and the emerging creative solutions to it. She introduces the organisation and talks about her experience there as well as her motivation behind it.

Italy, alongside with other 170 States around the world, is party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) – one of the treaties at the base of international human rights law. This Covenant, signed in 1967 and ratified in 1978, states in article 11(1) the general right to an adequate standard of living, which is specified in four other fundamental rights: the right to food, to water, to clothing and the right to housing.

As is said in the General Comment no. 4 of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, issued on 13 December 1991, the right to adequate housing applies to everyone, regardless of age, gender, economic status and other such factors. According to the Committee’s view, the right to housing is integrally linked to other human rights, and it therefore must not be interpreted in a narrow or restrictive way: the housing must meet the standards of adequacy.

This concept is not universal, since it is influenced by variables like economic, climatic or cultural ones. Despite this, the Committee considers that there are common elements that must be guaranteed and these concern: the legal security of tenure, availability of services, materials, facilities and infrastructure, affordability, habitability, accessibility, location and cultural adequacy.

Despite all these provisions, jurisprudence and annual reports show that there is a de facto gap between “the standards set in article 11(1) of the Covenant and the situation prevailing in many parts of the world”. This happens both in developing countries as well as in some of the most economically developed societies.

According to Italian domestic law, the loss of housing can lead to loss of residence, which is defined in article 43 of the Civil Code as “the place where the person has his habitual abode”. It may seem like an aseptic definition, but it represents much more: it represents the main dimension of a person’s life. It concerns a person’s bond with the territory – and its community – not only in a legal sense, but also in an economic and social sense.

In turn, the loss of residence results in the compromise of a series of fundamental human rights enshrined in the Constitution: the right to work (article 4, paragraph 1), the right to defense (article 24, paragraphs 1, 2, 3), the right to health (article 32, paragraph 1), the right to social safety nets (article 38) and the right to vote (article 48, paragraph 2). To all this, we add the fact that no identity card or health card is issued. Thus, a vicious and paradoxical circle is created in which personal situations that most need protection are at the same time those that receive the least.

For instance, people in a compromised state of health cannot take advantage of the general practitioner provided by law; those who have a difficult family situation or, more generally, need help cannot access the support of social services. Moreover, in order to be self-sufficient it is necessary to have a job and the vast majority of employers do not hire those who are without residence and are therefore homeless. Thus, those who find themselves homeless are, because of the circumstances, led to remain homeless.

It is in this scenario that the association Avvocato di Strada was born and operates. Founded in 2007 in Bologna by a group of volunteer lawyers, it aims to help and defend the rights of homeless people. It has offices in 54 Italian cities and sees the collaboration of more than a thousand volunteers including lawyers, jurists, retired judges and people who assist them. Each office works as if it was a real law firm, with reception times and days. Those who need legal aid go there and they can receive it for free; if the situation requires it, the relationship between the client and those who help him can even last for years and always without the former having to pay anything.

The type of legal assistance provided is very wide and ranges from the field of tax law to criminal law, from civil to administrative law; much of the aid is given in the sector of immigration and residence permit, as many immigrants live in precarious situations on Italian territory. One of the main battles of Avvocato di Strada concerns the residence and it being the main “front door” for the exercising of the fundamental rights mentioned above.

To overcome this problem, a trick has been created: the residence registered as domicile may not only be a place you live in such as your house, but also a selected association, a dining hall where you are known, a dormitory or a fictitious street that, as ISTAT (Italian National Institute of Statistics) has recommended for years to all Italian municipalities, must be established precisely for this purpose. For instance, in Verona the fictitious street is named after Olimpio Vianello, a popular homeless elder who tragically lost his life in 1990. Through this escamotage many people, helped by the volunteers of Avvocato di Strada, have found a way out of their condition and have been able to start a second – and hopefully better – life.

I started working for Avvocato di Strada as a volunteer last year. Although I do not have formal expertese because I am still a law student, I do have time and that I gladly give. I thought that volunteering at this association would be useful for my personal growth and a would give me an opportunity to look into possible directions I could pursue the future. Indeed it was, and not only that but in such a short time I actually already gained much more.

I had the opportunity to stand side by side with capable and selfless people and I was able to meet people with the most diverse background and stories. There were those, who arriving with only a shirt on in the middle of winter, had already walked all the way from Pakistan; parents who would do anything to guarantee a future for their children; and also people who born and raised here in Verona, my city, had lived a normal life until they suddenly lost everything. It was by watching these people and talking to them that I understood the true meaning of determination.

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