Encouraging signs from municipal shelter’s first weeks

The first five people to make use of the recently launched homeless shelter run by the City of Athens on central Nikiforou Street arrived at the facility on June 5 and are currently part of a social rehabilitation program launched by the municipal authority in May with the aim of changing the philosophy behind social welfare policies as well as improving the image of the Greek capital.

The issue of Athens’s growing homeless problem came back to the forefront last week when New Democracy MP Fotini Pipili addressed a question to Health Minister Adonis Georgiadis regarding the presence of numerous homeless people sleeping at the entrance to the Monastiraki metro station, in one of the city’s busiest tourist spots. Georgiadis told Parliament that the ministry is in the process of drafting a map of the city’s homeless population and where people who live on the fringes of society – such as drug users, the homeless and undocumented migrants – seek shelter.

Residents of the capital have become almost inured to the sight of homeless people huddled on flattened cardboard boxes and wrapped up in blankets in the recesses and arcades of buildings all around the city center. But for the 25 social workers and health and safety inspectors employed nearly two months ago by the City of Athens to get the problem under control, homelessness in Athens is a much more complex issue.

“It is not just about homelessness,” explains Dimitra Nousi of the City of Athens’s Social Services Department. “This is probably the smallest part of the problem. We are talking about drug addicts, people without rudimentary means of communication, people with psychiatric problems, professional beggars and so on.”

Since May, a team of five specialists have been making two daily rounds – morning and evening – of parts of the city that are most frequented by indigents, providing basic healthcare to those who need it and explaining the benefits of City Hall’s welfare programs.

“What a lot of people fail to understand is that these people do not have a very high opinion of the state and are often uncooperative. We try to earn their trust and to convince them to do something good for themselves,” says Nousi. “Even if it means just sleeping in a bed for a night and taking a shower.”

The first five homeless people to be convinced have already moved into the Nikiforou Street shelter and are currently receiving help so that they can gradually re-enter mainstream society. According to the shelter’s social workers, many categories of people living on the streets become isolated and invisible to society, even though they are constantly in view.

Until recently, the first state representatives that homeless people would come into contact with would be the police, normally telling them to move on following complaints from residents. Now that the City of Athens is beginning to get a clearer picture of who the city’s street people are, why they are in their current predicament and where they sleep, it is also trying to build a relationship of trust and provide shelter.

“We already have 100 beds at the Nikiforou Street shelter, but we have just opened up two additional floors and will be adding another 40 beds,” says Nikolaos Kokkinos, the deputy mayor in charge of City Hall’s welfare programs.

“Now we are trying to start working with other services, and especially the OKANA and KETHEA drug rehabilitation programs, as drug abuse is a big part of the problem in Athens,” Kokkinos adds.

Authorities at the City of Athens claim that there are 600 homeless people in the center of the Greek capital.

“The people who are living in the streets have given up. Our aim is to convince them that they can rise above the defeatism and to mobilize the state services that can help them,” says Kokkinos.

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