No charge for Airbnb rooms as victims of Greek wildfires scramble for shelter


Victims of wildfires that engulfed a seaside town in Greece, killing at least 83 people and damaging or destroying hundreds of homes, scrambled to find shelter on Thursday as Airbnb stepped in to match those in need with free rooms.

The fires – the deadliest in the country’s history – overwhelmed the resort town of Mati at the height of the tourist season, forcing residents and holidaymakers to run for their lives and plunge into the sea.

Initial inspections of the area, less than 30 km (17 miles) east of Athens, showed more than 500 homes were damaged, most of them beyond repair.

"People are suffering terribly from trauma after what they’ve been though," said Georgia Trismpioti, senior humanitarian affairs officer for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Greece.

"They’ve lost friends, family and they’ve seen their houses destroyed," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"The community will need long-term support in order to be able to rebuild and recover from this disaster."

Online accommodation marketplace Airbnb activated its "Open Homes" program, which matches displaced victims and aid workers with local hosts that have spare rooms they provide free of charge.

The concept began in 2012 after Superstorm Sandy struck parts of the United States and has now taken on a global disaster role, responding to 250 disasters and housing about 11,000 people, according to Airbnb.

"Through Open Homes, travellers whose journeys have been interrupted as well as temporarily displaced locals will be able to connect with local hosts who are opening up their homes at no charge," said regional director Hadi Moussa in a statement.

Mati is a popular destination for second properties and holiday homes among Greeks, particularly pensioners.

Those whose only homes were in the scenic town have returned despite warnings not to do so after reports of looting.

As the global climate warms, experts say disasters from floods to fires will leave millions homeless, with the private sector under pressure to step in.

"Housing needs are absolutely critical in the aftermath of a disaster," said Ilan Kelman, researcher at the Institute for Risk & Disaster Reduction in London.

"Whatever happens, people have to eat and people have to sleep, and it really helps if they have a place where they can do that where they know they’re not going to be assaulted, harassed or attacked."

Other companies offering solutions include Shelter In A Day, which was founded by a furniture maker in Florida and has developed an eco-friendly home that can be built by two people in three hours without electricity.

"You can build this basically using the heel of your shoe, it’s the only tool you’d need," said founder Frank Schooley, whose invention was a response to the 2010 Haiti earthquake.

The emergency homes are currently being used in the United States, where they withstood last year’s Hurricane Irma, and as health clinics in Mali. But Schooley wants to see more use of such initiatives in the aftermath of global crises.

Although shelter is an urgent priority, Kelman said housing companies must put the needs of victims first, and not merely promote their own services.

"Home is a process not a product," he said. [Reuters]