The Guardian, England’s leading newspaper, has recently featured a story by contributor Jon Henley, who walked the streets of Athens and described what he experienced, finding that the homelessness issue in Athens remains more visible now than ever before. Henley met some of the new homeless of Athens, who talked about their life before and after the crisis, their wandering the streets of the Greek capital, and their nightly quest for a safe hide-out in which to sleep.
Athens “is one of the world’s most ancient cities, home to Plato and Aristotle, with its recorded history stretching back some 3,400 years. The “cradle of western civilization,” the “birthplace of democracy,” Athens remains a major commercial hub of southeastern Europe. But it is also, these days, capital of a country that has suffered, perhaps more than any other, from the 2008 global financial crisis and the strain is showing: streets are crumbling; a third of shops are shuttered; signs shouting Enoikiazetai (For Rent) are everywhere. Through seven years of deep recession, Greece’s GDP has sunk by a quarter. The official unemployment rate is 27%, including 52% of under-25s. That means some 180,000 (probably many more) of Athens’ 670,000 residents – and maybe more than 1 million of the 4 million-odd people who live in the greater Athens urban area – are now without work,” Henley points out.
According to Ivan Juric of the “John S. Latsis” Public Benefit Foundation, which funds nearly 50 social programs for homeless people, homelessness does not reflect a city’s socio-economic status. Munich, for instance, ranked by Monocle magazine as the world’s most livable cities with the highest quality of life, also suffers from mass homelessness. EU’s Federation of National Homelessness Organizations (FEANTSA) has even argued that the term “homeless” should be redefined to include all those living in temporary housing: with friends or family, in abandoned buildings, or even in their own flats, but without water or electricity because they are unable to pay their bills.
In Athens, one of these is 53-year-old Athenian Vassilis Dimopoulos, who used to earn up to 3,000 euros per month until his employer folded in 2008. “The industry was already in trouble and I saw it coming. I sold my home in 2007, though the small profit I made is now gone. For a time, I lived in a place belonging to my cousin; she didn’t want rent but I couldn’t afford electricity. Then she needed it back. I was on the streets for six months,” he said. Now Dimopoulos lives in a Red Cross hostel, selling Athens’s street paper “Schedia” (Raft). “It’s very hard to find a job now. In sales –my field — hundreds apply for every post,” he added.
Today, approximately 1,000 people are sleeping on the streets of downtown Athens. NGOs raise that number to 1,500, and by FEANTSA’s definition, as many as 15,000 Athenians can be classified as homeless. Most homeless are men, half of them non-Greeks. 60% of them are addicted to alcohol or drugs and two thirds have physical or mental health issues.
Jenny Varvagianni, an Athens public official, claims that the capital of Greece and other urban centers have been pushed beyond a socio-economic crisis into a humanitarian crisis. “What’s bringing us to our knees are the people who had jobs, had their lives in order, were supporting their families, educating their kids… Regular, middle-class couples who lost both, or maybe just one job, and are now on the brink. The new poor; the new homeless. Family support is strong in Greece, so very few of the new poor are actually sleeping on the streets. But many have had water or electricity cut off or face eviction at any moment because they’ve fallen so far behind with their rent or mortgage,” she said, concluding that “we’re afraid: how long can this last? People’s pay and pensions have been cut, everyone is more and more squeezed, landlords too. It’s going to get worse before it gets better.”
As FEANTSA points out, in the face of an estimated 25% increase in homelessness since 2009, Greece still largely has “no integrated strategy for homelessness” and tackles it in “an indirect and incoherent way.”
“The handbook just really needs to change here,” Juric explains to The Guardian. “The approach is almost like alms-giving, when what’s needed are constructive, efficient, evidence-based social programs, based on best practice. Many countries are on the way to resolving this… but I’ve seen more palpable change in places like Nepal and Ghana than Greece.”
In numbers, according to a recent report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), 17% of the Greek population is currently unable to meet their daily needs for food. Approximately 30% are living below the poverty line. Unemployment benefits in Greece are €360 a month for a year (€200 thereafter); to qualify for benefits, one needs to have worked 125 consecutive days during the previous two years. And once they are out of work, they lose – almost invariably – their health insurance. Overall, according to OECD, Greek health spending is now 25% less than it was in 2008.
At the moment, more than 90 people are waiting to become “Schedia” street paper vendors. Christos Alefantis, the former journalist who founded “Schedia,” claims that he has had to hire out-of-work architects, electricians and journalists, most of whom are now residing in hostels or squats, or even in their own flats but without water or electricity.
49-year-old vendor Theotokis Vonitsanos had been a waiter, builder and courier, earning €1,000 a month, before he found himself jobless in 2009. He now lives in his mother’s apartment, often without utilities. 39-year-old Yannis Kotsos, a trained infant teacher, owed a year’s rent to his landlord before he found work at “Schedia.” “Even today, I owe four or five months. It’s only by the generosity of my landlady that I’m not on the streets. And she really is generous – my rent is her only income,” he said.
“Fueled by economic meltdown, the near-collapse of most state provisions and a widespread official unwillingness to seek more creative solutions with what few resources remain, Greece’s homelessness problem looks set to get a lot worse before it starts getting any better,” Henley concluded.