Greek crisis creates thousands of middle-class homeless
By Christine Pirovolakis Oct 9, 2011, 2:06 GMT
Athens - Along a dusty road of the old gasworks quarter of central Athens, where cafes, bars and restaurants once overflowed with the city's middle class, Lambros points with embarrassment to the beat-up car he called home for several months.
After losing his wife to cancer, Lambros, who asked not to be identified by his last name, believed he had experienced the worst.
Then the economic crisis struck, and the interior designer lost his job in 2010 when the economy-driving construction sector went from boom to bust.
Evicted from his apartment, he was forced to roam the streets before finding refuge at a homeless shelter in the Greek capital.
'It's hard to imagine that I once had a life that was completely different to this - one day I had a job, could pay my rent and the next day I found myself living out of my car,' the 55-year-old man told dpa.
Lambros' story is characteristic of a tide of homelessness sweeping Greece.
Increasing unemployment from a 3-year recession and biting fiscal reforms needed to stave off default in exchange for multi-billion euro international bailout loans have wreaked havoc on the lives of many, especially the once large and prosperous middle class.
Countless neighborhoods resemble ghost towns as nearly one in four businesses have gone bankrupt, cash-strapped pensioners can be seen picking up rejects at the weekly street markets that sell fruit and vegetables while entire families are foraging through rubbish bins late at night.
Homelessness is not a new problem here. Even 20 years ago, when Greece was living an era of relative prosperity homeless people dotted the country's large cities and main ports.
But today, the homeless population is not only at historic highs, but the profile of the homeless has substantially changed as the debt crisis has forced many onto the streets through bankruptcy and job loss.
Once likely to consist of a population of alcoholics, habitual drug users and the mentally ill, the homeless now are more likely to be middle-class, the young and moderately poor individuals and families.
Officials at Klimaka, a nongovernmental organisation offering support to the homeless and depressed, say the number of homeless in Greece has increased by 25 per cent to 20,0000 over the past two years, an overwhelming increase in a country known for its family oriented culture.
Anta Alamanou, coordinator of the Klimaka programme to help the homeless, said every week nearly 200 people pass through the doors of the shelter where they can bathe, are offered food, first aid and clean clothes.
At a nearby food kitchen nearly 3,000 people line up a day waiting for a hot meal - up from about 75 people a day when it first opened a decade ago.
'The number of homeless people has increased due to the economic crisis in the last year, but their profile has changed as well. They are people who lived a normal life but due to the crisis that has hit almost all occupations and age groups, have found themselves in this situation,' says Alamanou.
With the unemployment rate now nearly 17 per cent, the new homeless come from all walks of life and include those once involved in seasonal occupations related to tourism, guards, sailors and technicians.
'It is usually middle-aged men in their productive years or who are about to retire at the age of 60-70 years-old, says Alamanou.
Traditionally, individuals and families in need would have been supported by extended families but the economic situation has become so tight that parents, children, siblings and cousins find it difficult to take in unemployed relatives.
Compared to other European countries there are no government supported homeless shelters in Greece and no official policy in place to help the homeless return to work and to society.
'Greece has been living beyond its means for decades, with the Greek government borrowing heavily and going on something of a spending spree,' said Panagiotis Petrakis, director of the Economics Department at the University of Athens.
He said that as money flowed out of government's coffers, tax income was hit due to widespread tax evasion.
Whatever the reason, the effect on Athens and other large cities and towns has been severe.
Leonidas, a small-set man in his early 50s found himself with no money, no family and no roof over his head two years ago after losing his job as a painter.
Sleeping on cardboard boxes with a group of other men in alleys, Leonidas survived by eating at food kitchens before finding a bed at the shelter.
'Every politician that has passed through this country has only cared about filling his own pockets - our politicians do not care about the good of this country let alone the homeless who are now living on its streets, like me,' he says.