Scattered among the bright lights of Athens,11,000 shadows cast by the city’s homeless

Costas has been homeless for years and sleeps in the Sarafeio sporting complex in central Athens, just one of many outdoor areas used as a makeshift camp by the city’s growing population of homeless people. «We don’t want charity but a job, and until then a [social services] card so that we can do a few things without being humiliated, like get on a bus or buy a newspaper,» he said. «Anyone can find a plate of food in Athens, but what we want are jobs. We are not junkies,» said Michel, a Frenchman who has been in Greece for 22 years. In his shelter in Klafthmonos Square are the tools of his trade; he helps erect advertising hoardings, but it is not enough to pay rent on an apartment. «I don’t want to break down in front of you, but I need help,» said Haris, who is trying to get on his feet as a house painter after breaking up with his wife and doing some time in prison. «The number of homeless is growing all the time, and they are not only foreigners but Greeks who can’t make ends meet,» said Deputy Mayor Eleftherios Skiadas, who also heads the Homeless Foundation. «The problem is now becoming visible in Athens. We are trying to prevent it.» About 11,000 people (3,000 of whom are Greeks) live in temporary shelters in Athens, according to estimates by the European Homeless Watch, despite what they say is a lack of reliable figures. Sociologist Diamantoula Vlantoni, who works for the Klimakas non-profit society for the homeless, believes the lack of state surveys is not a coincidence, «since as far as the state is concerned there is no real problem,» although the situation on the ground is becoming drastic. «Sixty percent of the homeless people whom we talked to during our research say that they have scrounged for food in the garbage and on the street,» said Vlantoni. «A small but not negligible percentage said they were capable of committing a crime or doing themselves harm in order to spend a night in a prison cell or hospital,» she added. Not all the homeless are on the streets. According to Artemis Kalavanou, a sociologist at the Greek Network for the Right to Shelter and Housing, «homeless» means having no access to decent and safe housing. «There are people living in homes with no electricity, hot water, heating, or toilet. There are immigrants living 10 to a two-room apartment, people living in abandoned houses, others living in difficult circumstances with relatives or temporarily in hostels,» she said. A large percentage of them have been released from psychiatric hospitals, where they are released without any concern for their future welfare. Many are ex-convicts or drug addicts. A growing percentage are victims of the social consequences of economic growth – bankrupted by loans or failed credit card payments, those who have lost their jobs just before reaching the pension age, or those on very low pensions. Women in particular pay a high price. Many are victims of spousal abuse, others are single mothers. It is not as large a leap as one might think from living in a home of your own to the street. Some people are just a few paychecks away from homelessness. Although the percentage of home ownership in Greece is relatively high (74 percent) and families generally provide a safety net, modern social difficulties are eroding the traditional means of support. The Greek State and other authorities have been taking a piecemeal, patchwork approach to the problem of poverty. There are no structures in place to help people rehabilitate, to deal with the particular problems faced by drug addicts or those suffering from depression, for example. There are no housing services as in other European countries. «We need urgent legislation to set up state housing services and fund the construction of homes for those who are unable to provide them for themselves, or to rent existing apartments,» said Spyros Psychas, of the non-governmental organization Arsis. «Athens has many abandoned buildings that could be used to house those in need.»

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