Local government and social services organisations try to identify and assist the homeless.
By Andy Dabilis for Southeast European Times in Athens -- 02/09/2013
An estimated 20,000 people are homeless in Greece, living mostly in Athens. [Andy Dabilis/SETimes]
The homeless in Greece are a diverse population, but the growing number of the "new poor" has prompted local government and social organisations to provide for their basic needs.
"It is summer and people are talking about vacations only, but Greece's crisis is still affecting the lives of many in society and many people are still homeless," Ada Alamanou, head of communications for Klimaka, a non-governmental social services agency for the poor, told SETimes.
The new homeless are families, working-class individuals, even professionals. "They had a normal life and job but lost everything and are on the streets," Alamanou said.
There is no official information on the number of homeless in Greece, but Klimaka estimates there are about 20,000, mostly in Athens. That's far above the city's official estimate of 600.
A study by Klimaka last year found that nearly half of the homeless have children and a fifth have college degrees. The number has increased by roughly a third since 2009, though some critics said the percentage is inflated. Stephanie Sampson, an artist who draws portraits and catalogues the lives of some homeless, said she is struck by the increase in the number of homeless.
"The government's failure to help these people, be they the visibly impoverished on the streets or the poor with a home, is partly due to the fact that the Greek welfare system was sparse and highly bureaucratic even before the crisis, and because now it simply does not have the funds," Sampson told SETimes.
Leo Hanen, who worked as an icon maker but lost that job when the financial crisis began four years ago, is typical of the new poor that become homeless.
"It was easy to find myself homeless and on the streets but I was lucky to be a beneficiary of Klimaka. But if you can accept you have nothing, you learn to live with nothing," Hanen told SETimes.
In Greece's tightly-knit society, where an estimated 85 percent of people own their homes, families have helped those who have lost jobs by taking them in.
But Klimaka said the homeless have fallen off the radar screen as working-class Greeks struggle to survive and the government readies to transfer or fire up to 40,000 public workers and end a ban on foreclosing homes. Moreover, police sweeps in the last two years have pushed many of the homeless further to the fringes of society, even to caves.
A study last year found that nearly half of Greece's homeless have children and a fifth have college degrees. [AFP]
In April, the homeless participated in a silent parade calling on the government to provide healthcare and basic social services.
Experts said the problem has gotten worse but without hard numbers it is hard to assess its severity.
"There is a sense that because of the crisis people could not pay their mortgages and some of them are in the streets now; that is probably true. Budget cuts made it worse and it is hard for the government to regenerate the welfare net," Alex Afouxenidis, a sociologist at the National Center for Research in Athens, told SETimes.
With few government programmes available during the crisis, Athens opened a homeless shelter last month, but was initially able to take in only five people.
The authorities are also adding two floors to an existing shelter with 100 beds, and are trying to co-ordinate services with other agencies, especially drug treatment centres.
Health Minister Adonis Georgiadis said a map is being drawn to identify the number of homeless, their location and how best to assist them.
Meanwhile, Athens officials have dispatched 25 social workers and health and safety inspectors to help but said they often find the homeless are not eager to receive assistance.
Since May, a team of five specialists has been making two daily rounds in parts of Athens most frequented by the homeless, providing basic healthcare and information on City Hall's welfare programs.
"These people do not have a very high opinion of the state and are often unco-operative. We try to earn their trust and convince them to do something good for themselves, even if it means just sleeping in a bed for a night and taking a shower," Dimitra Nousi of the Athens social services department told Kathimerini.
The deputy mayor in charge of City Hall's welfare programs, Nikolaos Kokkinos, told Kathimerini many of those people living in the streets have given up.
"Our goal is to convince them that they can rise above the defeatism and to mobilise the state services that can help them," he said.
What additional measures can government and NGOs take to assist the homeless? Share your ideas in the comment section.