Milan’s original stock exchange — built in the central city in 1901 as an opulent cathedral of capitalism — is now, oddly enough, the world’s largest Starbucks.
Behind the grand, three-story façade stands 25,000 square feet of marble and steel. There are 115 coffee drinks to be had, and a pastry case that is 10 yards long. A working roastery features a 22-foot-high bronze cask. Everywhere you look, there are people taking selfies.
This is less about coffee than conspicuous consumption.
I ordered a decaf mocha. It tasted same as here, which is to say, nothing special. You can slather as much lipstick on this pig as you like, but it will still just be a Starbucks.
Milan’s homeless paper — Scarp dé Tenis — is hosting the International Network of Street Papers annual conference this summer, and I was there as an INSP board member last week to meet the staff, scope out the venues and help plan the future of the street-paper movement.
I found a city that is elegant and rich, a center of art, media, design and commerce. A global hub of capitalism, just like Seattle. Milan also has the highest concentration of homelessness in Italy.
Stefano Lampertico, the charmingly white-haired and very Catholic director of Scarp dé Tenis, is proud of Milan’s homeless response. Like Seattle, his city has a robust human services network and the tax base to sustain that.
When I asked whether the Milanese worried that the availability of services might draw poor people to the city, the street paper director seemed genuinely puzzled at the question.
“No. Nobody worries about that. We have a saying here: Milan col Coeur in man.” This roughly translates as “Milan holds heart in hands.”
“We take care of each other,” he said. “The richest people are in Milan, and it is expected that they will be generous.”
About 2,000 homeless people sleep in Milan’s homeless shelters each night. Another 300 are unsheltered and tend to sleep out near Central Station. Lampertico says most of these people struggle with addiction and mental illness.
When the cold becomes life threatening, they often seek overnight shelter at the airport or accept offers for emergency shelter in the city.
There are no homeless sweeps, so outreach workers and others always know where to find them. Relationships get built, and sometimes offers of help are accepted.
“Homeless people are not seen as so dangerous,” Lampertico said.
But that’s not to say Italians are free of prejudice. At this moment, the targeted population is migrants and refugees. Sometimes, these and those who are homeless overlap.
“Fifty years ago,” Lampertico said, “everyone was afraid of people coming from south of Italy. Now it’s from the south of the whole world!”
“People here can find places to eat. They can usually find a bed when they need it. The problem is work.
“There’s no stability. Especially for young people. There are no long-term jobs anymore. People get hired for a few weeks or a few months. Then, it’s on to the next job.”
While the average unemployment rate in Italy is about 10 percent, for people aged 18-25 years old, that number climbs to nearly 33 percent. Increasingly, Italy’s homeless are the young and out of work.
“Is this the future in Italy?” I asked.
“Yes,” Lampertico said, “that’s where everything is headed. When the government talks about the new economy, they use words like ‘dynamic’ and ‘flexible,’ but the reality for most people is huge economic uncertainty.
“It’s actually easier here to find work for migrant workers, because while that is very low-wage, at least it is regular and has predictable cycles. For young people, little hope is on the horizon.”
In the homeless shelters in Milan, it is not uncommon to see UberEats delivery bags stacked against the wall. In Milan’s “dynamic” economy, this is the work that poor people can get.
Each trip earns you a single Euro. Four trips, and you can buy a decaf Mocha at Starbucks.
Cue Leonard Cohen. “I’ve seen the future, and it is murder.”
This is capitalism, whether you’re in Milan or Seattle: The philanthropic rich keep up appearances, while the rest of us get UberEats and circuses.
Meanwhile, the divide between rich and poor grows only more obscene.
Tim Harris is the Founding Director Real Change and has been active as a poor people’s organizer for more than two decades. Prior to moving to Seattle in 1994, Harris founded street newspaper Spare Change in Boston while working as Executive Director of Boston Jobs with Peace. He can be reached at director (at) realchangenews (dot) org
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