Earthquake victims with nowhere to go

In the four years and four months since Athens’s catastrophic earthquake of September 1999, just 19 of the 101 camps for the homeless have closed down. Of the 5,700 container homes, 600 have been put back into storage. There are still 3,500 families living in camps, in what are virtually towns within a town, a new reality for the capital. In the small «Lathea B» camp at Menidi, western Attica, in a 23-square-meter container home, Voula Koutrouba, her daughter and her parents are spending their fifth consecutive winter. «Our 66-square-meter home was condemned and demolished. We obtained a 15-year loan of 6.8 million drachmas from the Earthquake Victims’ Fund and 2.7 million drachmas in free state assistance. That is, we received 110,000 drachmas per square meter, which was the price in 1981, not 1999, which reached 300,000 to 400,000 drachmas per square meter. Nevertheless, we decided to build again,» Koutrouba told Kathimerini. «Before we could start building, half the money had gone on bureaucracy and excavation. The whole state aid package went on the builders’ social security payments. How can you build a house with 5 million drachmas? So we took out a second mortgage. Now we have erected the concrete frame and we just sit and look at it,» she said. Koutrouba believes that similar problems are faced by most of the owners of homes destroyed in the quake. «I know people who took out 10 or 15 loans, housing, consumer and other loans, and still haven’t finished. Most have left the camps, not necessarily because their homes are finished but because they couldn’t stand living there anymore. I think that in the end we’ll build our houses and then the banks will come along and take them off our hands because we are all up to our ears in debt.» In contrast to the owners of homes destroyed in the quake, most of whom have left the camps, many of those who were renting are still living in containers. The reason is the economic effects in the areas worst affected by the quake. «No one has settled anywhere. We simply don’t have a choice because we are poor,» said Machi Sioli, president of the earthquake victims association at the «Axion Esti» camp. «After the quake, rents in Menidi and neighboring municipalities skyrocketed. Many of the homes were patched up and rented out again. We went to the ministry and showed them photographs of how shoddily the repairs had been done and we were told that this was not the ministry’s responsibility, but the homeowners’. But it isn’t the homeowners who are forcing us to rent their homes, it is the ministry that is pushing us to leave the camps. All very well, but where are we supposed to go? Should we rent here and have the roofs fall on our heads, or go and live in a hole in the ground somewhere in the city center, because we can’t afford anywhere else?» she asked. Apart from the homeowners and tenants who are restricted by finances, over the last two years many of the camps have been filled with people from socially disadvantaged groups (the unemployed, homeless, Gypsies and immigrants) who have squatted in vacated container homes. «No one has got in by accident,» said Lefteris Saxanidis who lives in the Kapota camp. «Most of them settled here before the local elections. Now they want to get rid of them. But these people are still homeless and jobless. What are they supposed to do?» The State and local government appear to be stuck in a trap of their own making. In some cases the situation is extreme. «When some camps empty, we are responsible for registering the empty containers and informing the ministry to take them away,» Acharnes Mayor Spyros Striftos told Kathimerini. «But in the meantime, Gypsies and immigrants turn up and occupy the homes.» About three weeks ago, when ministry teams arrived to remove some of the camps, a crowd gathered and threatened them with weapons. Many of the occupants had acquired legal status from the previous municipal authority. «In fact, what we have here is a repetition of the refugee housing situation in 1922,» said Kozani Mayor Paris Koukoulopoulos, also president of the national union of municipalities (KEDKE). «The phenomenon has assumed several dimensions. First of all there is the creation of small ghettos, with all that entails. Secondly, the camps were set up on municipal land, which is being tied up.» A significant factor in the problem is the long delay in implementing the much-vaunted (by Prime Minister Costas Simitis and competent ministers in September 2001) Ano Liosia housing program. «We have handed over about 80 of the total of 950 homes,» said Ano Liosia Mayor Nikos Papadimas. «About 400 are in the final stage and the foundations and frames of 200 more have been laid. When you are building 1,000 homes, there are 1,000 possible reasons for delays. We have delayed paying the firms and the earthquake damage loans are coming slowly. The homeowners owe us money,» he said. Camp-dwellers to be evicted «We have to see just who is living in the camps now,» said Deputy Environment and Public Works Minister Yiannis Tsaklidis. «Most owners have already left. The rest were tenants in their homes, but they only had the right to stay in the camps for two years. Some believe that they have a right to a housing loan even though they were not homeowners. According to the law, their occupancy is illegal. But this goes no further. By summer, all earthquake victims’ camps in Attica will have been closed for good. We can’t hold the Olympic Games in Athens with people living in containers.» Tsaklidis distanced himself from the housing program, which he said was the municipality’s responsibility. «There is absolutely no delay regarding the responsibilities of the Environment and Public Works Ministry. The ministry has no housing programs, nor is it responsible for them. The only thing we do – and only for those who have the right and if there are particular social reasons – is to find a temporary solution, together with the municipalities.» Whether drowning in debt or marginalized by unemployment, the 3,500 families in the camps believe they are victims of an effort to present a pretty picture of an Olympic city. Not surprisingly, they declare their determination to resist. «We will do battle with anyone who tries to get us out,» said Sioli. «We’ve never asked anyone for favors. Only for a little help, so we can stand on our own two feet and live like human beings.»

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