On a man who lives in an alcove & entrenched political corruption as standard

Friday, 3 August 2012

There's a place in the dead centre of Padova, a long row of marble seating cut around the entrance of Palazzo Bo. It's the perfect place to watch the world go by in the evening; the sun falls low, staining everything gold, and the locals pass through town for that brief hour of relaxation in between work and dinner.
Women walk leisurely, swinging their overpriced Luis Vitton bags. Groups of young men strut along behind them, wiggling their sticky-out arses and chewing gum.
Both the men and the women wear designer shades, despite the fact that it's dusk. Church bells ring out from nearby piazzas. This is the time of day to take a walk, and more importantly, to be seen.

There's a man who's always in this location, night and day, but he's not instantly noticeable. Around one corner of Palazzo Bo, tucked into a renaissance alcove; a slight man, with cropped hair and clothes of white & biege, blends into his stone and marble surroundings.
Despite the resigned, defeated expression on his face, this man wants to be seen, too - his presence here, sleeping rough in central Padova, is intended as a form of protest.

I was sitting in my favourite spot with a friend one night, when we noticed the man step out from his alcove to gather a bright pink flower that had fallen from a large Bouganville plant.
I watched him return to his corner and place the flower inside an empty Actimel bottle. Concerned about the man's dishevelled appearance (and smelling a story), I followed him around the corner.

He was sat on a stool, looking out from a dark corner of the alcove. Propped against the walls around him were hand-written signs:

(When I work I have dignity)

(I want, I can, I need to work)

(All people have the right to their own physical and psychological integrity in life)

We spoke with him. His name was Nicola, he was from Puglia, and had worked for most of his life as a bathroom/ floor tiler. In his last few years in the South of Italy, he had grown tired of never having a secure job, of moving from one 2/3 month contract to chase the next.
He was in Padova, the more industrial North of Italy, to find a secure job, but hadn't been successful so far.
Rather than sleep in the homeless shelter offered to him by a church member ("I don't want to be the judge of alcoholic people, just of myself") he decided to set up camp outside the Padova town hall, instead.
Now, he sleeps rough every night, hidden behind a carboard stand.

It wouldn't be true to say that people in Padova don't care - whilst we were there a young woman with a mayonaise moustache stopped to offer him half of a tuna mayo sandwich. Other people had donated bottled water, food, a cellphone, an air mattress and had offered him money.

"People stop, and are curious. Some of them ask me if I need anything, and bring me things, but I don't want people to give me money... I'm asking for work and for dignity. I don't want to be homeless."

Nicola spends his days talking to people in the city centre,  researching articles on 'the right to work' in the Italian constitution and occassionally writing poetry about his condition:

He told us, gesturing furiously, that his efforts to secure work at the local job centre were scuppered because he couldn't give them a home address. After 2 months of attending meetings and copying documents for the authorities to assess his case properly, he was called back to the office to be told, again, that his case couldn't be processed because he doesn't have a home address.

With unemployment figures across Europe peaking at the highest they've been for decades, Nicola makes for a disconcerting sight; here's a man who can work, who wants to work, who will do any job, sitting, jobless and homeless, on the streets of a 'first world' country.
And yet, people all over the world, groups of hundreds and thousands with voices much louder than that of Nicola, are protesting against political and financial greed in a time of austerity. People are going to great lengths to have their voices heard; occupying buildings, having cans of tear gas emptied into their faces, and even setting themselves on fire.

But it doesn't seem to be sinking in. The response of governments worldwide seems more concerned with criminalising the protesters, than with regulating banks or clamping down on the trend for corporate lobbyists to 'donate' money to political parties.

In the UK, The conservative government planned to push through a law that will make it easier for workers to be fired without a reason. In Canada, the government have been successful in implementing a new law that makes protesting in the streets illegal. And in Nicola's own case, he's been approached numerous times by a group of policemen, who "said they would ask the sindaco (mayor) to approve a medical note and section me in an asylum if I kept protesting and being homeless."
Whilst Nicola, a perfectly sensible and intelligent man, sits on the streets, not knowing if he's going to be dragged away to a padded cell, Silvio Berlusconi, the man who oversaw the descent of Italy into economic woe, high taxes and high unemployment, walks away from 17 years as PM with billions of euro in his personal bank account.

Of course, it's difficult to arrest a criminal with so much money and influence (Berlusconi passed a law that granted himself and his cabinet immunity from prosecution), and is therefore much easier to bully a frail, malnourished homeless man for writing a few words of protest on a sheet of A4 paper.

I asked Nicola if he would end his protest now that he's been threatened by the police.
"For sure I will continue the work and a right for all... la lotta continua."
(The fight continues).


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