“Do you speak Italian?”, came the question, in Italian, from the guy sitting opposite me on the tram. I replied that I did and he asked if I could spare any cash. He was one of Milan’s many beggars.
The guy, who I learned was from Sicily, seemed to have fallen on hard times. I felt sorry for him and offered him a coffee.
While we had coffee, he told me that he’d had to come back to Italy after working as a pizza cook in Germany. One of his relatives had been taken ill. He had then headed to Milan in a, so far unsuccessful, search for work.
Unfortunately, someone had stolen his wallet, along with his documents, including his ID card and mobile phone.
I paid for the coffee with a €10 note and gave him the change. I wished him luck and we parted company.
If I had had more time, I may have taken him to a store and got him a cheap cell phone along with a pay as you go card. Only the card would have had to have been put in my name, seeing as the man had lost all his documents. That may not have been such a good idea.
These days, Milan seems to be overrun with beggars. They are everywhere and can be, more or less, categorised.
The African Gangs
[contextly_auto_sidebar]By far the most common variety of beggars in Milan are those who stand right outside coffee bars, supermarkets and banks, caps in hand.
These guys, and occasionally, girls, judging from their skin colours, appear to be of African origin.
They are everywhere and appear to be organised. Many carry mobile phones. Well, Milan is Italy’s economic powerhouse, so even the beggars have to have them! It seems you cannot go to a supermarket nowadays without being accosted by a cap waving donation collector.
Where do the begging gangs live? Who knows, but they disappear at night.
Next up are what I’ll call the wanderers.
These people, usually male, often of seemingly African origins, walk around collaring people like me asking for change.
Some will literally follow you down the street talking to your back.
A few carry handwritten notes telling tales of woe, kids to feed, and lack of cash. The wanderers sometimes display crumpled notes in an attempt to convince one to donate.
The Dog Owning Beggars
Others seeking donations are what I shall call the dog people.
This group, often found sleeping under the arcades in central Milan, have dogs. Often big dogs. Sometimes one, sometimes more. Heaven knows how they can afford to feed the animals.
The dog people don’t tend to pester people, they just leave a receptacle near their sleeping bags and seem to hope for donations.
This category of beggars tends to be white and young.
Stop reading, start speaking
Stop translating in your head and start speaking Italian for real with the only audio course that prompt you to speak.
Once they have found a spot, they become part of the street furniture and never seem to leave.
The Old Men
Next up are the old men.
Often in their late 50s or 60s, these dejected old guys also tend camp in the same spot for months, if not years, on end.
They may also have notes saying they are without work and requesting cash. Sometimes they’ll scrounge a cigarette or two. Are these people tramps? Who knows?
The actual tramps, which appear to have fallen in number in recent years, though there were never many, don’t tend to ask for money.
They seem to be able to find enough cash for cheap cartons of wine of bottles of beer, though.
Long marginalised by society, many of Italy’s Roma have turned to begging, busking, traffic light windshield washing, and other less legal activities.
Some train their children to be pickpockets, others specialise in burglary. The Roma apparently exploit their children simply because children don’t tend to be slung in prison when they are caught. Indeed, the children tend to be released and find themselves back on the streets robbing once more.
The begging activities of the Roma in Milan are quite limited nowadays, though a few do hang about near traffic lights asking for money.
One such person is a guy in a wheelchair who spends his days wheeling himself in and out of the traffic in search of small change.
This guy can sometimes be spotted in the mornings with a couple of other Roma. Presumably, the wheelchair bound beggar’s friends wheel him into position in the mornings and then wheel him home in the evenings.
Are the Beggars a Problem?
Sometimes they can be intimidating or even quite irritating. When I am out and about, I’m asked for money around 10 times a day, virtually every day.
One does worry a little whether the beggars may turn aggressive but this does not appear to happen often, thankfully.
More than anything else, Milan’s beggars are a sign of poor economic times and possibly a not so efficient welfare system.
While Milan hasn’t banned beggars yet, other cities in Italy have.
Como prohibited begging in the city center during the 2017/2018 Christmas period.
Trento has been banned begging outright. Citizens unhappy with the ban attempted to overturn it earlier in 2018.
Other areas of Italy have attempted to ban beggars too. These attempts, however, do little more than sweep the problem under the carpet, which, alas, tend to be the age old Italian solution to just about everything.
Hopefully the economic situation will improve and the beggars will diminish in number. This is highly unlikely to happen overnight though.