There is nothing romantic about walking the streets of Athens at night anymore. Instead of gazing at the decorated shop windows and buzzing bars, our eyes wander to the blankets, cardboard boxes and plastic sheets that the city?s homeless cobble together every night into makeshift shelters, hoping that they can fend off the cold and get a decent night?s sleep, and, maybe, that tomorrow will be better than today.
Up until a few years ago, homelessness was a rarity in this country of close family ties. Today, though, the crisis has chased many from their homes, people who have lost their jobs and found themselves unable to pay rent and/or their bills. These are a new breed of homeless on the streets of the Greek capital.
Giving this burgeoning population street dwellers a helping hand, once a week, just after dusk, volunteers for the homeless shelter Klimaka, a Greek nongovernmental organization, hand out a plate of hot food, blankets, clothes and medication.
Kathimerini joined the NGO?s volunteers on one of their nightly rounds.
?The locations where the homeless set up camp change all the time,? explained Ada Alamanou, who heads the outreach program. ?A few days ago, dozens were sleeping in the area around Klafthmonos Square, but then the benches were torn up and they had to scatter in search of other hospitable sites. Someone tells us where the new sites are every day, whether they are in the center or in outlying areas.?
Our first stop for the night was at Zappeio in the National Garden, where a handful of homeless people were trying to make a bed for themselves on one of the many benches in the park, under the shelter of the trees and in the relative safety of the light cast by the Aigli events hall. Many had a stray dog for company and warmth. Around five of the group are regulars, according to people who work in and around the park. Two volunteers approached them and gave them a card with the address of Klimaka and a plate of hot food. The volunteers told us that it is not always easy to reach out to the homeless, either because they are wary of strangers or because they are ashamed of their predicament and will hide as soon as someone approaches.
?After a while, most will turn up on our doorstep at one point or another for a hot shower or a meal,? said Alamanou. ?But it takes time to foster trust.?
On the way to the next stop, the Klimaka van made a sudden stop when the volunteers saw a row of people covered top to toe and huddled together on a garbage-strewn sidewalk on Filellinon Street in the city center, with a broken sewer pipe gushing nearby.
One couple, sleeping in each others arms, woke up and smiled at us but didn?t get up. Two elderly Serbs, who have lived in Greece for almost a decade, welcomed the volunteers with great enthusiasm. ?You are saviors,? one of them said as he hungrily wolfed down the food handed to him.
A young man lying beside them did not get up as a nasty injury to his leg had rendered him immobile. ?It?s starting to become gangrenous,? said volunteer Athanasia as she disinfected the wound and dressed it in clean gauze.
?I went to a hospital but they turned me away because I don?t have insurance,? said the young man. ?I can?t walk, not even to the food line.?
The next stop was just a few steps away from the trendy restaurants and bars in Gazi that have made the area a popular nighttime hangout with those who can afford it. Under the nearby Poulopoulos Bridge, five men and woman had set up a makeshift camp, complete with two old armchairs, sleeping bags and a radio. They spend their mornings at the Klimaka shelter and nights sleeping under the bridge.
?There you are!? said Andreas when the van drove up. ?This is a good spot,? he said, confidentially. ?Before we were sleeping in Syntagma but got chased away, and before that we were in Aegaleo.?
His brother, Yiannis, stood nearby, listening to our conversation. ?We?ve been together our entire lives,? said Andreas. ?We used to have jobs and a home, but then Yiannis accidentally set fire to the house. It looks like you need to burn everything down to finally get some sense,? he added.
Further away, a man who we are told is called Mohammed and is from Syria, appeared completely lost. ?He can?t find any work,? Andreas told us. ?A family has arrived on the other side of the bridge,? he added. ?They have five children and one of them is a baby.?
It is estimated that the number of people living on the streets of Athens has soared to around 20,000 over the past two years, and the phenomenon is is showing no signs of letting up, according to experts.
The shelters run by Klimaka and the City of Athens accommodate around 300 people a day, while other groups and associations, such as the Red Cross, are also beginning to respond to the homeless problem by opening up parts of their premises to families.
Klimaka offers meals twice a week, and on a daily basis it provides shower facilities, a change of clothes, a medical checkup and legal counsel.
?We get around 300 people a week coming to take a shower and to change clothes,? said the NGO?s Alamanou. ?The provision of public rest rooms is really becoming an emergency.?
During heat waves and cold snaps, Klimaka stays open 24 hours a day. ?There isn?t enough room to accommodate everyone, but at least they can spend the night in a sheltered environment,? Alamanou added.