& Events

One-stop shopping in Tuscany

Feb 26, 2024 | News

Andrea de Conno (ANCI) and Andrea Raspanti (Assessore Coesione Sociale, Livorno)

A group from Miskolc (Hungary) and Košice (Slovakia) visited Tuscany (Italy) in November to look at the way social services are delivered in an integrated way to the worst off people in society – the homeless and vulnerable families. They visited two centres in Livorno and Capannori, near Lucca, which are partners in the Reticulate project,[1] funded under the same EaSI call as 4IM[2] in Miskolc.

Cutting through complexity

“Over the last ten years, since the financial crisis and the COVID epidemic, we’ve seen an explosion of need,” says Andrea Raspanti, Livorno’s deputy mayor for social cohesion. This gives us the opportunity to reflect on the errors of 30 years of social policy. NextGenerationEU has given us the means to put the individual at the centre of our work.”

The successive crises of finance, COVID and migration mean that poverty is now affecting many more people. The number of children living in poverty in Italy has more than doubled between 2008 and 2018. In the country as whole there are 10,000 homeless people, and in Livorno 900. The inflow of migrants has stepped up recently – six boatloads of migrants from Africa have landed at the port this year – and there are many Africans living in overcrowded public housing on the northern outskirts of town.

The problem has become not only more sizeable but more complex. This demands a multi-dimensional solution, in which a single point – a one-stop shop – gives access to a wide range of services. The issues addressed include income, employment, training, health (physical and mental), housing and other social problems.

An important feature that distinguishes the Italian experience from that in Hungary or Slovakia is the presence of a well-established – indeed venerable, since the Order of Malta has been around since 1133 – voluntary sector. These can bring significant personpower to bear, and field hundreds of volunteers. But voluntary doesn’t mean amateurish, as the workers are trained for the job. Thus, the public sector is happy to work in parentship with them. What they bring is not only capacity but also a change of culture, which spreads a concern for inclusion widely in society. This culture is not entirely absent in Hungary, but is much more limited.

The initiatives in Italy draw resources from a variety of places. One major source is the national GOL (Garanzia di occupabilità dei lavoratori – Workers’ Employability Guarantee) programme. To supplement this, some regions contribute. So there is a patchwork of funding that is not always consistent.

GOL – the Workers’ Employability Guarantee

The national Garanzia di Occupabilità dei Lavoratori programme[3] is an active labour market programme launched in the wake of the COVID epidemic, and funded from the EU’s Recovery and Resilience Facility to the tune of €4.4 billion until 2025. It offers an integrated and individually tailored service package delivered by both public and private organisations. Across Italy, it will benefit 3 million people, of whom 800,000 will be given training, including a large component of digital skills. It is targeted at fragile people (young people, disadvantaged women, disabled people and the over-55s), the working poor, and those on income support. It comprises five measures, implemented after an initial interview, including reinsertion, upskilling and reskilling. The most important measure is that for “work and inclusion”, which runs for 18 months until 2025 and can include a 6-month work placements with an employer. Livorno province has allocated a budget of €1.6 million to this measure.

A multi-dimensional solution

Andrea De Conno of ANCI in Livorno introduces the Reticulate project by saying “The basis of our work is to be welcoming”. The project’s pilot operations run slightly differently depending on the urban/rural context. In urban Livorno the project works from a single base, while Capannori, a semi-rural municipality just outside the beautiful Roman town of Lucca that comprises a score of different settlements, has established 10 local branch offices.

The teams have several different tools at their disposal. Livorno hosts a reception centre for homeless people, sited within walking distance of the station, which is a major gathering place for people on the move. This offers meals, washing and laundry facilities, and two dozen beds. But, over and above meeting subsistence needs, it supplies companionship, entertainment such as films and, crucially, access to a wide range of advice and services, including legal advice, health and psychological help. Conveniently, the town’s employment office is right next door, and can offer training and even six-month work placements with a wage subsidy. A particularly interesting initiative is that of providing housing guarantees, so that families with no savings can sign leases on accommodation.

Matteo Francesconi, Capannori’s Vice Mayor for Social Affairs, summed up his approach as follows:

“The municipality is the institution that is closest to the people. We aim to stop our population sinking down after the crises we have gone through. To benefit the peoples, teamwork is fundamental, because a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Social problems may arise because of unemployment, but they are complex and require an integrated response. That’s why our team meets each month to discuss each case, and includes a psychologist and a coach, which most municipalities do not have. And their services are often called upon.”

The relatively small size of the Capannori municipality, with 50,000 inhabitants, makes it easier to carry out experiments. The challenge is to unify the work of three departments – social services, health and employment. This will avoid citizens having to go round in circles to find the help they need, and provide access to multiple professions – not just social work but education, health and psychology.

The approach is participatory and interventions are not decided top-down: the beneficiary is part of the group that takes the decisions. From the point of view of the employment office, it is far more satisfactory to be able to bring in social and education services to help unemployed clients than to send them away with their problem still unsolved. As coach Valter Barontini says:

“The task is not given – it’s about solving problems. You have to be close to the person, help them understand what integrated services are, and enable them to make use of them. Enthusiasm has to be part of everything. Our partnership with associations works in both directions: they provide special services and we ask our clients to give back by volunteering with them.”

The municipal psychology service is delivered by six psychologists, who work chiefly with families and children. They don’t offer advice: what they do is take the temperature then develop a project together. This can involve many things, such as conflict resolution.

Staff of the Employment Office in Capannori

An important voluntary sector role

Among the voluntary associations involved in Reticulate are the Misericordie, the Order of Malta and Caritas. They offer free services including medical services such as ambulances and COVID testing, legal advice, and help with the ever-present paperwork that often baffles those in need. They also provide food aid, collecting unsold food from supermarkets four times a year, and provide clothing and blankets. For the last two winters the Misericordia has run a “social B&B” in Lucca for individuals and families in a transition phase, which has been used by 1,000 people. The issue of permanent housing is looked after by a working group with the municipality. This practical help is needed more than ever in a climate of government budget cuts. But over and above this they also offer friendship: the volunteers engage with people, respect their dignity, and follow up their welfare.

Teamwork, case management and communication

What are the main lessons that the participants took home with them? First, the recognition that although the activities may be the same, the cultural and administrative framework within which they are delivered is quite different. It is not a matter of legislation, since the necessary regulations are in place. However the operating method is all-important. The Tuscan approach is based on teamwork within the public authorities and between them and civil society, and on individual follow-up of clients. Secondly is the unspoken assumption that public institutions and voluntary organisation work in partnership as a matter of course to resolve social problems. Beyond that, the project showed up the importance of communication and transparency in changing cultures and mindsets.

Toby Johnson