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Squatters hope to build a better life

Radical solution reflects growing problems for young Italians

Image Credit: Reuters
Unemployed Mariangela Schiena, 31, (R), of Italy, and her boyfriend Henok Mulugeta, 28, of Ethiopia stand in the residencewhere they live in Rome. Schiena and Mulugeta are living as squatters in an abandoned building after they lost their jobs and could not pay the rent.
Gulf News

Rome: When Mariangela Schiena moved to Rome from southern Italy 11 years ago, all she hoped for was a simple life, with a roof over her head and a home where she could start a family.

After she and her 28-year old boyfriend Henok Mulugeta lost their jobs in shops six months ago in Italy’s economic slump, she decided there was only one way to achieve her goals: move into a squat.

“Everything was getting more expensive, not just bills, and we couldn’t make it to the end of the month,” said 31-year-old Schiena as she shivered near a portable heater in an abandoned public archives building on the outskirts of Rome.

“The first night that I slept here, I woke up in the morning and thought: how nice! I don’t have to pay rent anymore. I don’t have to worry about not being able to make ends meet.”

Their radical solution reflects the growing problems facing young people, immigrants and others struggling in Italy’s year-long recession — key issues as campaigning begins for a national election expected in February.

Prime Minister Mario Monti has hiked taxes and cut public spending to try to reduce Italy’s huge debt, measures that have pleased investors but deepened the downturn in the euro zone’s third largest economy, hitting consumers and businesses hard.

Youth unemployment is now more than 35 per cent, triple the overall rate, and companies usually offer young people only temporary contracts with limited benefits, meaning many live at home with their parents or move abroad.

Monti, an unelected technocrat, said at the weekend that he intends to resign as soon as the 2013 budget is approved, prompting Italy’s main banking and business associations to call on the next government to uphold his reform agenda.

But for ordinary Italians, higher taxes have eaten into already squeezed personal finances. Consumers have cut back on shopping, forcing many stores to close down and pushing people like Schiena and Mulugeta out of work.

Schiena, for one, said she had completely lost faith in the Italian political class. She is among roughly half of Italians who surveys show are either undecided or will abstain in the elections.

“I used to vote, but for the past two years I am abstaining out of protest. All our politicians are corrupt,” she said.

Rome City Council says it knows of about 2,850 properties that are illegally occupied by squatters in the capital but is reluctant to give detailed comparisons with previous years. A spokeswoman said only that authorities evicted squatters from 176 properties in 2011, up from 157 in 2007.

Schiena said she was initially sceptical about looking at the kind of improvised accommodation which was previously used by only very desperate groups such as illegal immigrants.

She and her Ethiopian partner Mulugeta share the rambling maze of corridors with 140 families, mainly immigrants from countries including Tunisia and Ecuador. They said more and more people were joining squat meetings and protests in recent months and asking to move in.

Noisy neighbours, thin walls, leaking ceilings and shared bathrooms have been among the hardest things to get used to, they said, but the communal atmosphere also has benefits.