Homeless people living in the centre of Verona are to be cleared out like pigeons after the city's right-wing mayor announced plans to introduce fines of €500 (NZD $806) for those found feeding the homeless.
Flavio Tosi, the first citizen of the pretty northern city forever associated with Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, said the rising numbers of vagrants in a central piazza was posing a "risk to public health".
And he blamed a local homeless charity for attracting them there with food handouts.
"Near to Piazza Dante there's a garden where for some time the Ronda della Carita [charity] has been sending food parcels," said Mr Tosi, a member of the rabble-rousing Northern League.
"Now there are 20 or more [homeless] sleeping there and they use it like their own toilet. The situation has become unmanageable; for this reason I've had to introduce this ban," the mayor said.
He added that in Verona there were already "loads of" refuge centres, while those who chose to live rough were provoking an "environmental health disaster".
Marco Tezza, the president of Ronda della Carità, said the ban and news of the fines had come "like a bolt out of the blue".
"We didn't encourage the tramps," he said. "We go where we're needed. If there are problems with hygiene and public order you boost safeguards and increase controls. Fining those who bring them food is not the answer."
The provincial president Giovanni Miozzi criticised the new policy. "I understand the need for decorum and public order but during a period like this the priority must be to help people in difficulty," he said.
Francesca Businarolo, an MP for the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, decried the move as an election ploy. "This law has one function during an election campaign - to remind the electorate who Flavio Tosi is - the mayor sheriff," she told the Verona edition of Corriere della Sera.
Mr Tosi denied the law was cynical electioneering. "My decree is not out of keeping with the Christian spirit and besides, during the winter when there's an emergency cold snap, we welcome illegal immigrants, too," he said.
But the mayor's reference to immigrants is likely to remind critics of the Northern League's attitude to minorities in general.
A senior party member, Roberto Calderoli, last year compared the black minister Cecile Kyenge to an orangutan.
Despite the uproar he refused to resign his post as Deputy Speaker of the Senate.
Other prominent Northern League officials, particularly in the party's north-east heartland around Verona, have at times appeared to be in competition with each other to see who can make the most offensive comments about gays or ethnic minorities.
The party's reputation as a refuge for bigoted goons was reinforced in January this year when the Northern League MP Gianluca Buonanno blacked up in parliament to accuse minister Kyenge of using her then position as integration minister to "favour negritude".
- The Independent