The Postal Paradox

In 1864 in Italy, the concept of a civilian registry was introduced. A civil registry enabled the government to have a systematic practice to record legal residents in Italy. However, with the registry, people had to register their permanent addresses with the government in order to enjoy their constitutional rights. This system became problematic for people who often migrated from one place to another. Without a fixed address, they could no longer access public infrastructure and services. In response, for floating workers like artists and circus performers, the government gave them invented street names to use as addresses. 

Today, this registry system is becoming a socioeconomic barrier for homeless people. In Italy, in order to enjoy the right to vote, access to healthcare, and other social benefits, one needs a legal address. In other words, if you do not have an address registered, your rights as a citizen will not be recognized by the government. 

For the homeless, Italian municipalities have set up imaginary addresses that do not exist on maps but carry the same legal value. Though fictional, the addresses provide basic rights to people who do not have a legal place of residence. As of today, there is an estimated number of about 237 fictitious addresses. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, when people were laid off and could no longer afford their rent, they were evicted, putting more people onto the streets in Italy. As new tenants moved in and local authorities updated their registries, evicted tenants could no longer enjoy their rights. More people are becoming reliant on imaginary addresses to claim their citizenship rights. 

However, giving imaginary street names to the homeless is not a standard practice across Italy. Some municipalities refuse to use fake addresses to respond to the lack of constitutional rights of the homeless. Some of Italy’s neighbors, however, implemented or are experimenting with similar policies to address their homeless populations. For instance, Belgium allows people without a permanent address to use a “reference address,” which can be the address of another person, a non-profit organization, or a Public Centre for Social Welfare. Alternatively, the UK allows homeless people to use a “proxy address,” which refers to an address of a vacant property, for up to six months. Gary Bester, who participated in the UK’s proxy address scheme, reported finding a job after borrowing a virtual address. Here in the U.S., some states like Vermont provide the option to use the addresses of homeless shelters. 

As governments create new ways to bypass their own system, an important question comes to mind: Why is a permanent address a prerequisite to enjoying constitutional rights? Citizens Advice, an independent social services organization in the UK, argues that the registry system worsens the socioeconomic conditions of the homeless. Without an address, homeless people have more difficulty receiving correspondence about job findings, as well as legal and healthcare services that can assist them. Most importantly, they are excluded from receiving the basic services they need  most. The lack of an address adds even more difficulty in getting jobs that could help them escape poverty. The Citizens Advice refers to this phenomenon as the “postal paradox.” 

Governments rely on their geographical databases to understand the spaces they govern and address their administrative needs. A civilian registry is, therefore, an important tool for governments to reference. Yet, the reality is that people are often not fixed to one location, and some do not have the privilege to have a place they call home. Our system, which dates back to the 19th century, knowingly excludes the people who do not fit nicely into our categories of rightful citizens. Using imaginary street names can just be a provisional solution to address their needs. Rather, having to resort to provisional addresses should prompt governments to face head-on the issue of homelessness, as well as to question the merit of the current registry system.