By Tania Georgiopoulou & Costas Onishenko
Clothes, personal items, kitchen utensils and mattresses. These were some of the things collected from the 27-hectare Pedion tou Areos park in central Athens during a joint campaign organized recently by City Hall and the Attica Regional Authority.
In less than three years since its reopening in December 2010 following a 10-million-euro restoration project, the park appears to have become a safe haven for the homeless, drug addicts and other fringe groups affected by the financial crisis.
Meanwhile, residents of nearby neighborhoods have continued to visit Pedion tou Areos, one of the few places in the heart of the capital where you can still enjoy a walk away from the noisy traffic. Walking up the park’s main boulevard, you can see people out for a stroll or a jog as old men sit on the benches chatting or playing dominoes.
Families with young children and skating teens coexist with drug addicts who shoot up behind the trees as homeless people seek a safe spot to get some sleep. Male prostitutes can often be seen looking out for clients.
“Please don’t put my name in the newspaper,” said one elderly man. “People will wonder what a man like me was doing in the park. You don’t see many normal people around here any more.”
“We have nowhere to go, we get chased away everywhere else,” explained a young drug addict. Friends told him to come here to get a fix, he told us.
Drug dealers can be seen lurking amid the trees. The statue of Athena at the main entrance to the park is used as a lookout post. Sometimes dealings take place behind the monument. The drugs are usually hidden away inside the park.
Homeless people, many of whom are addicts, had in recent months set up a small makeshift camp. The various communities, as it were, have divided up the park between them. Those who have no reason to hide walk along the marble paved paths while the rest prefer less obvious spots.
Three weeks ago the City of Athens and the regional Attica office – which is officially responsible for administering the park – launched a campaign to clean up the site.
“Tons of waste, huge objects, just about anything you can imagine was removed from the site,” said Deputy Athens Mayor Andreas Varelas, who is responsible for sanitation, adding that of the 35 people who appeared to live inside the park, only two showed an interest in our proposal to be move into municipality accommodation.
Varelas said that in order to stay clean, the park needs to be alive. “The park can host activities organized by nearby schools and other events as is the case in other European capitals.”
The Attica Regional Authority has called a tender for the security and maintenance of Pedion tou Areos. After the cleanup campaign it was decided that the park will remain closed between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m.
Giorgos Economopoulos, general director of the Attica Regional Authority, told us the authorities were left with no other option.
“We put up a fence and now the park has 17 entrances, some of which could be kept shut.”
Opening hours are subject to adjustment depending on future needs and conditions. However, the mood should be rather upbeat in the coming days as Pedion tou Areos will be hosting a Christmas fair.