OPINION

Ending homelessness

Destitute poverty may have declined in recent years, but it has hardly disappeared completely. We are not referring, of course, to those families living under the poverty line; these make up a considerable percentage of the population. We are referring, rather, to those of our fellow citizens who are the victims of social exclusion and isolation. Homeless people comprise one of these categories. According to data released by the European Observatory for Homelessness, there were about 17,000 homeless people in Greece in 2003. This is not a huge number, but is still a source of shame for our society. To be sure, the phenomenon is hardly unique to Greece. People without a place to live exist in all big cities – including those that are highly developed. In fact, the number of people without a home is proportional to the wealth concentrated in the urban centers. Accordingly, the rate in Britain and Germany is three times higher than in Greece. Homelessness can also result from earthquakes or other natural disasters. Despite the acute problems that these people may face temporarily, they are not classified as socially excluded persons. And it is this particular social class which tarnishes our claims to civilization. In all likelihood, the number would be even higher were it not for the strong family ties in Greece. The Greek family looks after its members, which helps keep these numbers relatively low. Studies have indicated that the problems facing the homeless are not only material in nature. One in three people without a home suffers from psychological disorders, while a considerable number face chronic physical health problems. Things are also tough, though in many ways different, for homeless immigrants. These are usually young people who came to Greece in search of a better life. They find support from their ethnic kin who offer them temporary or permanent accommodation. This often means that they have to live in large numbers in very small spaces that often fail to meet basic health standards. Despite these severe limitations, hope is still very much alive in their souls and, at least in that sense, they are better off than many others. It goes without saying that the state has an obligation to tackle the issue. It would be unfair to say that no steps have been taken in that direction, but still a lot remains to be done. Unfortunately, the few initiatives taken by municipalities, such as the creation of job centers, often meet resistance from the local communities, as happened with the recent plans to open a detoxification center in Thessaloniki.