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 Schiena, 31, 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, problems that are 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. These measures that have pleased investors but deepened the downturn in the euro zone’s third largest economy, and hit consumers and businesses hard.
Youth unemployment is now more than 35 percent, 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 recently 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.
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 said she had completely lost faith in the Italian political class. Surveys show she is among roughly half of Italians who 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.
Squatters on the rise?
Rome City Council says it knows of about 2,850 properties that are illegally occupied by squatters in the capital, but it 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 skeptical about looking at the kind of improvised accommodation that was only used in the past by 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 neighbors, 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.
“You don’t have to worry about going hungry,” said Mulugeta. “People check up on their neighbors and help each other out if they need something.”
There is a children’s playroom in part of the building, a large hall for parties and assemblies, cleaning rotations for the toilets and decorated Christmas trees in the corridors.
Schiena and Mulugeta have spent money earned from cleaning jobs to furnish their sparse room with kitchen appliances, shelves and a double bed. They even have a television, a cable subscription and a video game console.
Though they will not be taking part in the elections, the couple did hope for a shift to a left-wing government that would be sympathetic to the difficulties faced by younger generations.
“I heard something about Italy coming out of the crisis. But all my friends are losing their jobs from one day to the next. I don’t think this crisis is over,” said Schiena.
“We just want a simple, tranquil life, to raise a child. But my fear is that things won’t change, and I will not be able to live the life that I wanted.”