Homelessness rising as crisis takes toll

Until about 18 months ago, Dimitri had a home, a job, a regular life. He had passed homeless people on the street, rarely giving them a second thought. He never imagined he could become one of them.

That was before Greece was gripped by a vicious financial crisis that has left the country teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. Now the place he calls home is beneath a highway overpass, his bed a blanket laid out beneath a battered old desk. Part of a discarded crate serves as a pillow.

Since the debt crisis erupted in late 2009, tens of thousands of Greeks have lost their jobs or businesses and many others struggle on in employment where they haven’t seen a paycheck in months. The unemployment rate reached a record 18.4 percent in August, a time when the peak tourist season usually sees a dip in jobless figures.

The number of those sleeping rough has shot up by about a quarter over the past two years to reach an estimated 20,000, said Athanasia Tourkou of Klimaka, a charity that cares for homeless people as well as the mentally ill.

“Before it was only the mentally ill or former prisoners,» said 49-year-old Dimitri, who used to work for a well-known Greek folk dancing troupe. «Now it’s totally different. Now there are families on the streets.”

Divorced with a 19-year-old daughter and 18-year-old son, the former dancer is too ashamed to tell his ex-wife and children what has happened to him. He asked that his surname not be used because they think he lives with a friend.

He leaves his makeshift bed before dawn each day. «I don’t want people to see me sleeping on the street,» he said. «I walk endlessly. … It’s exhausting, psychologically as well as physically.”

Facing a runaway national debt and a massive budget deficit, Greece has relied since May 2010 on billions of euros in international rescue loans to make ends meet. In return, the government has imposed harsh spending cuts, slashing pensions and salaries and pushing through several rounds of tax hikes on everything from food and fuel to income and property.

Greece’s economy is projected to contract by 5.5 percent this year, and it faces a fourth year of recession in 2012. General government debt is to reach 161 percent of GDP in 2011, or euro352 billion ($470 billion).

Family ties still run strong in this southern European country of about 11 million, and relatives traditionally have been the first port of call for those in trouble. But those networks are fraying as hard times spread through traditionally stable families. Many evicted from homes because they can’t afford rent find themselves with nowhere to turn but the city’s pavements and park benches.

“Up until now people that were facing psychological problems or addiction problems were the main population of homeless people,» Tourkou said, sitting in the brightly painted office of the charity’s day center, where the homeless can find refuge, wash their clothes, take a bath and seek help for everything from psychological support to clothing.

“Now the profile is changing and we see people with a very high education level, people (who) up until a few months ago had a house, a regular job, were living with their families. And now they’re on the streets.”

Thousands of the Greek capital’s poorest now rely on food handouts, some organized by the church, some by the municipality and others by charities.

The main municipal soup kitchen is run out of a building on Sofokleous, a street once synonymous with the Athens Stock Exchange before the bourse relocated in 2007. It feeds about 2,500-3,000 people a day ? not just the homeless but also those so poor they have no other way of securing regular family meals.

For Dimitri, it’s a far cry from dancing in the theater in central Athens or traveling abroad with his old troupe. His life is now dictated by soup kitchen serving times.

“I had seen homeless people in England, in America. I never thought I’d be one of them,» he said.

Apostolos Ntonis has been out on the streets for about a year since the kiosk he worked at in one of the city’s roughest areas shut down.

“The bad thing is that there is nothing,» he said of the work situation. Besides, he added, pointing to his thin frame and grubby clothes: «Who will hire me in this state? I’m a mess, look at me.”

Before his kiosk job, Ntonis worked as a plumber on heating installations. But life on the streets has taken its toll on his health, he says, and he’s been in the hospital three or four times recently. When he first lost his home a friend took him in and gave him a place to stay for a while.

“But how long can they sort you out for? You can’t do that sort of thing,» he said.

To cope with the cold on the streets, where temperatures are falling to near freezing as winter wears on, he drinks cheap wine bought with whatever money he can make. Trapped in a vicious circle, he sees little hope for himself, his fellow homeless people or his country.

“Worse is coming,» he said before heading off to pick up a sleeping bag secured for him by the workers at Klimaka. «Believe me, it will get much worse.”

[Associated Press]

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