The Malta Independent 25 April 2019, Thursday

Malta has become an island dependent on food banks - Ivan Bartolo

Giulia Magri Sunday, 14 April 2019, 10:30 Last update: about 10 days ago

A photo of what appeared to be rough sleepers in Floriana made the rounds on social media last week – the latest cause for concern amid reports of rising homelessness, struggling shelters and pensioners at risk of poverty. The most recent figures published by Eurostat show, in fact, that 83,000 people in Malta are at risk of poverty or social exclusion. The Malta Independent on Sunday spoke to Ivan Bartolo, the Nationalist Party’s spokesperson for social accommodation, the fight against poverty, social solitude and exclusion, about the issues that vulnerable groups currently face.

How do you meet these vulnerable people, what do you do to help them?

Apart from my role as a politician, I’ve previously worked with Caritas and Aġenzija Appoġġ, so I’ve always been in touch with the more vulnerable sections of society, including people with disabilities, minorities and those facing poverty. I was one of the first to talk about homosexuality on the radio, back when it was still taboo. I’ve always been interested in discussing and highlighting the issues faced by vulnerable groups. Today, I get many calls from people who tell me about their issues, which range from unemployment to housing problems. So many people call me day in, day out to tell me that they have been reduced to squatting in empty houses. When I meet these people, the first thing we do is go to the housing authority to see what can be done. But the problem is becoming worse, and the situation is desperate.

 

You say the situation is desperate, but the government likes to paint a very different picture, boasting that the economy is growing and businesses are flourishing – despite the fact that statistics indicate rising poverty in Malta. Can you describe what types of poverty are growing?

I’d say that a growing number of people are at risk of poverty. One 73-year-old I met spent her entire life under her parent’s roof and never had to pay taxes. But when her parents passed away, the government saw that she had assets in the form of a field shared with her siblings, as a result of which, she was not entitled to a non-contributory pension. At one point, she earned around €40 a week as a cleaner, but now she’s worried she’ll end up with no money whatsoever.

An increase in the number of separations has also put more people at risk of poverty. A couple going through a separation approached me as they were trying to sell their flat, the proceeds of which they would then split between themselves. But we all know that this makes purchasing or renting a place very difficult.

 

Many people are facing poverty or are at risk of ending up homeless or vulnerable. Would you say that the situation is worse compared to ten years ago?

I think the demography of the island is very different nowadays. We see that there are many foreigners coming in from all over the world; many from poor or Third World countries. You have people sharing a flat between 10. I have seen 12 people sharing a flat, with bunk beds stacked up against each other; this, too, is a form of poverty.

Housing is also an issue. You have people earning a minimum of €800 a month, €450 of which goes to rent, sometimes just for a room. Unfortunately, you also have those who don’t know how to prioritise their spending; they worry that they won’t have enough to make ends meet so they gamble, which results in them losing everything.

 

We constantly hear of shelters not having enough beds for people, and soup kitchens being overworked; do you believe that the government should be investing more in shelters and soup kitchens?

I do not wish to make this a political issue, but I don’t think the government would be happy with soup kitchens, or shelter homes, or the increasing number of food banks. Our island has become an island dependent on food banks. Journalists are aware of the food banks organised by Caritas or Dar Papa Franġisku, but there are so many more charities. As a party, we also have a sort of food bank for those who approach us for help, but we do not promote this politically.

 

Why is that? Wouldn’t it be a good idea to promote this initiative to highlight the issue?

We are often criticised for complaining too much. Both the party and I have written about problems with poverty and housing. Today, we keep saying that we are living in a time of ‘L-Aqwa Żmien’ but who is benefitting from this? Every day I receive two, three calls from people telling me that they will either be thrown on the streets because their contract is ending and they cannot afford more expensive housing, and they are scared.

Right now, we have around 27 people sleeping in bus shelters; sleeping outside, in gardens. Many people are moving to Gozo because rent is slightly cheaper. Before, people used to say that Gozo did not have any issues of homelessness or poverty, but now we are witnessing a new type of poverty in Malta, and there is a shift in Gozo.

 

Who would you say is moving to Gozo in hope of finding cheaper property; the Maltese or foreigners?

Both the Maltese and foreigners are travelling to the sister island. As a party we are not against people making money, nor do we expect them to give out their apartments for free. I have a group of people who call and inform me when they are looking to flatshare, and they tell me “if you know someone who needs to share a flat, or a mother struggling to find housing — I am ready to help.” There are still Maltese people who try to keep prices reasonable, but then there are others who only care about money, unfortunately.

 

What is the Nationalist Party proposing with regard to poverty?

As a party, we discuss these issues constantly; we have sessions with Adrian Delia to discuss what people have told us. In the meantime, we believe a holistic national plan is necessary. The needs of someone with a drug problem, for instance, are different from a person neglecting their child. In the latter case, we have to work with social workers; in the former, we have to deal with OASI or Caritas, among other entities. With these cases, it is not simply a matter of drug or mental health issues; there are many other factors at play.

 

As regards foreigners working here and sharing an apartment with 10 other people...?

They are here just to earn money, which they can then send back to their families or parents back at home. For these foreigners, €3.90 per hour is much better than what they were earning back at home. I have met these people and they have left their country because of war or conflict, and are constantly sending money back to their families. For them they just wish to stay here for two or three years and then leave.

The Maltese, on the other hand, feel that they are not even part of this country any more, with some left extremely vulnerable situation which they cannot get out of alone.

 

And what can be done to help these vulnerable cases? What is being done or can be done?

As I said, a national and holistic programme is being pushed. If you have a mother with a drug problem who might not be so well-educated, what can she do? Most likely, she will turn to cleaning and have very little in hand. I met a woman who is 73 and still working. She has a son, but wants him to start paying his own way. We try to help them out of these situations.

Pensioners are also suffering. Someone living on €175 per month is crazy; many face deprivation or a risk of poverty.

 

Regarding pensions... you have said that the system needs to be reformed. Last week, the government said it had increased pensions by millions. What do you think the situation really is?

I can tell you that the pension rate is not good. Instead of rewarding pensioners for their contribution to society, their money is stolen. It was only Lawrence Gonzi who gave service people that €200, for instance. The Labour Party had also mentioned it in its 1996 manifesto, but due to a change in government, the reform was shelved. It was Lawrence Gonzi who helped those service people and their pensions.

 

So, basically, retired pensioners are not coping?

Of course not, no. Because when you work it out, and you have a pensioner who is also paying rent; you have a flat which you used to pay €300 for every three months, while today you have to pay €550 every month.

 

While I agree that there needs to be a more holistic approach to these sensitive issues, would you say that the party is moving away from a discussion on economic growth? Why has there been this shift in roles throughout the years?

That is why I feel more comfortable within the Nationalist Party, rather than the Labour Party. The PN’s slogan is that the party cares about society. In my opinion, and from what I see, the individual has always been at the centre of the party’s work. The Nationalists always provide people with opportunities.

 

Do you believe that while some individuals benefit from this economic growth, others don’t?

Not everyone is benefitting from the current situation. If we have this surplus to boast about, why are we also discussing residential sharing? Why has there been an increase in theft across the country? The older generations tell me that they have heard people trying to break into their houses but are too scared to report it.

 

Malta is currently facing a very high demand for workers; therefore, the island needs more foreign workers. Last Sunday, Adrian Delia said that the prime minister was “importing slavery;” what did he mean by this?

The issue is that the work has increased, but wages haven’t. The demand has increased, but today, if people complain about this, the employer shrugs them off, and tells them to find somewhere else because they know there are people desperate for a job out there. There are many foreigners out there who will accept any type of work. I met someone recently who was working as a housekeeper, and one day her employer told her to leave. Why? Because she’s found someone who was willing to do double the work for less. When Adrian Delia mentioned this form of slavery, he meant that these foreigners were being taken for granted and mistreated.

 

So what can be done to stop this mistreatment of foreigners and migrants?

There has always been this mistreatment, unfortunately, regardless of the party in government.

 

Now we see it at an alarming increase; what can the government do?

We have released numerous documents and research papers as the Opposition on what can be done. We are trying to be a party which places the person its centre, regardless of whether they are Maltese or foreign. That is why I feel more comfortable with this party; because I know that we try to focus on people who are vulnerable or try to increase awareness of these people.

It is important that the government is publishing a White Paper on rent, but people will not be living off this White Paper. It has only caused more problems, as since its publication, prices have increased. The problems of these vulnerable cases are so deep, it is hard to pinpoint exactly what can be done.

 

I am aware that poverty can never be completely eradicated but what can be done to help vulnerable people and decrease the chances of more people facing similar problems?

We are working on a massive, national plan. In one particular case, an obese teenager was declined a job simply because of his weight. This took a toll on his mental health, and from 123 kilos he dropped to 55 kilos; he ended up unable to work because he was so ill. This also had an effect on the rest of his family, since he was not able to provide for his mother, and they began to struggle. This 24-year-old needed help; do we simple send him to Kenn Għal Saħħtek and forget about him? No, we continue to work with him and check on him to make sure he is making good progress. We are a party that focuses on the individual and, therefore, make sure that they have the best care and each case is different and treated differently.

We do need to start thinking more about vulnerable minorities, which in reality are not a minority. We can no longer push aside people struggling to put food on the table, or those who do not have a bed to sleep on. Is this the Malta we want?

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