Every evening before dark, Athens looks like a large bedroom. Homeless people spread out cardboard and blankets to spend another chilly night in any place under the lee.
Homeless people in major Greek cities are not a new phenomenon. However, their number has significantly increased over the past two years. We talked with the spokeswoman of the non-government organization Klimaka, Ada Alamano, about who the new "Les Miserables" in Athens are and how they are being helped.
She said that in Greece, there have been homeless people ever since the 1990s. "Only the problem was not so visible then. At that time, society believed that the problem was associated only with foreigners, because there was a significant influx of immigrants in the country. Very quickly, it has become clear that the problem affects the Greek population. Until two years ago, when the economic crisis unleashed in Greece, we said that this is an existing problem, belittled by society and the state."
According to Ada, in the last two years, the issue of homeless people has undergone changes in terms of their numbers and social status. "We believe there is an increase of 20-25%. But what makes an impression is the quality difference. There is a change in the status of the people, who are currently on the street. They are the new homeless. Individual cases and sometimes families are in this situation only because of financial problems. They are unemployed, with low or no income; people, who have lost their homes because they could not make the payments for their bank loans and credit cards; medium traders, whose companies have gone bankrupt and others, who have been dismissed and have no family or friends to help them."
"People become homeless due to a combination of different circumstances. The basic one is lack of finances. Second is the presence of a health problem, mostly mental, combined with any addiction: drugs, alcohol or gambling. The third reason is the lack of support from relatives."
Ada pointed out that the "new homeless" are on the street, solely because of the first reason. As to the role of traditional Greek family, she noted that it continues to be the mainstay for many people and gave the example of "children" over 40 years old still living with their parents. "The family is still an important factor to contain the phenomenon, but it itself has problems now. There are many families with more than one unemployed parent or they are retired - their pensions have been cut and they are no longer able to help. Another reason the homeless people share with us is that they themselves are ashamed to tell their families that they have no roof over their heads and that they would not like to burden them with additional costs. Relatives or friends initially shelter many people who become homeless. But that hospitality cannot continue forever, so they stay on the street."
The new homeless have a medium to high level of education. There are people with degrees and postgraduate qualifications among them. "Because unemployment affects people of all ages, we could say that there is no certain age range. However, most of them are between 30-45 years old. There are younger people, who cannot make a living with the sharply cut salaries and their families are in the countryside, not able to help them. Addiction occurs often in these cases, however. The worst thing is that there are people aged 60-65 years, who lose their jobs before they retire and they remain without income until the appropriate age."
Ada’s experience shows that in theory, the new homeless people have the best chance to return to their old lifestyle. The financial crisis, however, makes this process difficult. "The only precondition for their reintegration is to find work. But it is very difficult today and their stay on the street is extended." According to the members of Klimaka, psychological support to these people is vital. "They experience a huge shock when their lives turn upside down. Imagine a man who has a home, a car, possibly a business. In short – he or she had quite a normal life. It is important that they do not become homeless for many years. They begin to suffer from mental health problems or become addicted to drugs or alcohol because it is getting harder for them to return to their old lifestyle."
The shelter of the organization can accommodate only 12 people, but the homeless are housed in the offices of Klimaka in Athens and other Greek cities. "We have 30 people sheltered now. They remain with us until they find work and they put their life in order. We have had cases of people who stayed with us for 10 years. But our work is not limited to providing food, clothing and warm blankets. We try to cover all the needs of the homeless. We provide them with medicines, medical services, psychological support. We have a social service, which deals with retirement issues and a lawyer to take care of their legal issues."
The only place in Athens and Piraeus, where the homeless can have a bath, is in Klimaka. "They are waiting in long queues to do this and get clean clothes. They also can use the premises as a club, where they can stay from 9 am to 9 pm."
The organization makes efforts to apply everything that relevant organizations abroad do for the people who live in the shelter. "We do not just offer them shelter for a period of time but make an individual programme for each of them according to their problems and capabilities. In other words, we help people cope with the problems that have led them to this condition. So, we tell them that the shelter is a transitional stage in their lives. We believe that what most organizations do by simply providing food and shelter to the homeless is just recycling the problem."