The lurking specter of homelessness in Greece

Organizations warn that the rising cost of living is making it harder for an increasing number of individuals and households to pay rent, utilities

The lurking specter of homelessness in Greece

You won’t see Giorgos sleeping rough but he is still at risk of finding himself back on the streets, homeless and alone, as he was four years ago, when his small mom-and-pop business went bust after hobbling through the crisis.

In his 50s and without any special training or skills, temporary work here and there was the best he could manage. He had no close relatives to help him out and in 2019 he could no longer afford to pay rent. His friends took him for a short time before he ended up on the streets.

“My beard and all my hair fell out in just six months. Homelessness is not something you can get used to, especially when you’re in your 50s,” he says. After a short stay in a shelter, he found a more permanent solution through the state’s “Housing and Employment” program, which put him up in a subsidized apartment for three years in a suburb of western Attica. Now that the three-year period has expired, he’s struggling to pay the rent on his own.

“I’m lucky. I have a 25-square meter top-story studio in Ilion with a nice view. The owners didn’t raise the rent. I get along with my landlady. I do odd jobs for her and also take on other work of that nature,” he says. If his rent goes up, however, he’s not sure how he’ll manage, especially with the rising cost of utility bills and other essentials. “I just received my social benefit payment and will use it to pay last month’s electricity bill. I try to pay one bill this month and another the next, so nothing gets disconnected.” Various organizations and the so-called Social Grocery Store provide him with the bulk of his food and clothing.

Giorgos knows that he’s not the only one in this predicament and even counts himself lucky compared to others. “It’s a tough situation. For people who don’t have parents or other family, it’s extremely tough. And it looks like there are tougher days ahead.”

Maria is one of those people whose situation is even more challenging. Even though she has a roof over her head, she can’t pay for electricity. “I’ve managed to work around it. One family gave me a big cylinder of gas and a gas heater,” she says. She gets her food at soup kitchens and uses day shelters for showers.

The number of people like Giorgos and Maria, who are struggling to hold onto their homes, has been rising again in the past few months, according to the organizations that help them.

“It’s not that we’re seeing poverty in Greek households for the first time, but the difference today is that there has been an enormous accumulation of crises which has driven a significant portion of the population to what we call ‘hidden homelessness,’” explains Marianella Kloka, president of the Greek Anti-Poverty Network (EAPN).

‘Needs are rising’

The term is used to describe people who are living in unsuitable accommodation or in a precarious situation and are having trouble paying utilities and rent. It is a facet of poverty that is not visible in the country’s streets and is absent from the public debate. For the people who work in the field, though, for the various organizations and initiatives that distribute meals and offer other forms of help to vulnerable people all over the country, the problem is more than apparent.

‘My beard and all my hair fell out in just six months. Homelessness is not something you can get used to, especially when you’re in your 50s,’ Giorgos tells Kathimerini

“Needs are rising. We’re seeing more and more homeless people in the streets, as well as ‘homeless’ people who have a home but don’t have the means to cook or, if they have electricity, can’t afford to use it for cooking,” says Ilias Tsafaras, a member of the Mano Aperta soup kitchen, adding that his organization feeds a lot of people who come to the distribution points from distant parts of Athens, using public transportation, to get a portion of food.

He says Mano Aperta is distributing more portions today than it ever has, except during the pandemic.

“The number of people at risk of eviction has risen, as has the number of people living in a squat or in a garage or in a home shared with half a dozen others. There’s a lot of insecurity and it keeps rising,” notes Natalia Markopoulou, who is responsible for social rehabilitation at the organization Ithaca, which launched Greece’s first mobile laundry service for homeless people in 2021. She points to widespread exploitation in the labor market as one problem, but also the rising cost of living, which is stretching small salaries and pensions.

EAPN recently conducted a survey of 30 organizations that are members of its network, asking them what the main problems the people they help were contending with in 2023. Most cited economic constraints and a lack of resources.

Uneven burden

Inflation and rising energy costs have placed an uneven burden on Greek society, hitting vulnerable households hardest. This was the key takeaway of a study conducted by Georgia Kaplanoglou, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Athens, and which was incorporated into EAPN’s annual report.

According to the study’s findings, the 10% of the country’s poorest households had to spend 14% more to maintain equal levels of food and energy consumption in 2023 compared to the year before. For wealthier households, the respective rise was just 5%. The study also revealed that from early 2022 until the middle of 2023, poorer households saw their situation deteriorate dramatically, mainly as a result of the rising cost of food.

“Using prices in August 2023 as the gauge, a family of four, which made up the average, needed an additional 2,200 euros a year to buy the same amount of food as did the year before,” the report notes.

“I can no longer shop as I used to at the supermarket. Meat is the hardest; I’ll get it, maybe, once,” says Louli, a migrant from Albania who has been living in Athens for the past 20 years. Once a week? I ask. “Once a month,” she says, laughing out loud. “It’s become so expensive. We’re going to end up eating nothing but cabbage; until that becomes too expensive also.”

Louli’s salary is no longer enough to cover her and her daughter’s needs. The situation, she says, is even worse than it was in the economic crisis. She cannot remember a time when basic necessities were as expensive as they are today. “I’m struggling to pay for the electricity. As soon as you pay one bill, another comes along. I’m behind in all my payments,” she says.

The same is the case for many of Louli’s customers, who ask her to mend old clothes again and again at the small seamstress shop she has near Amerikis Square in central Athens.

The Greek Anti-Poverty Network also found a steep rise in the number of households who are reducing the amount of food they eat or cutting the cost of food by buying products of much poorer quality that are higher in fats and sugars and have a much lower nutritional value.

Kloka notes that in many of the interviews she conducted for the purposes of the network’s study, parents said that they were doing their best to make sure the cutbacks in the food budget did not have an adverse effect on their children’s nutrition.

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