SOCIETY

Second chances for homeless in Athens

“Everything OK?” Vangelis would ask Panayiotis every morning while passing Zappeio Hall on his way to work. “Everything is fine,” Panayiotis, 33, would hesitantly respond having anxiously hidden his blanket and other belongings. The park in front of the historic building in central Athens became his home about a year ago. A bench was his bed, the fountains his washroom. “I was ashamed to tell him the truth, that my landlady evicted me after my mother died,” Panayiotis explained to Kathimerini. “I would go to the NGO twice a week to bathe. To eat, I would go to the local soup kitchen,” he said. “To earn some money, I would go to the Zografou graveyard and light oil lamps and make as much as 70 euros per week.”

One day, however, Panayiotis broke down. “I told Vangelis what happened. He tried to calm me down and started searching for solutions.” Thanks to his friend, Panayiotis came into contact with Diogenis, an NGO which assists the homeless and other vulnerable groups in Greece.

A great many people have found themselves without a roof over their head during the crisis years in Greece. In fact, according to the European Observatory on Homelessness, an estimated 9,000 people are homeless in Athens. However, there are numerous organizations out there which are able to help in one way or another, be it in the form of work, accommodation or simply a hot meal.

On November 11, 2013, Panayiotis joined the team that sells the street magazine Schedia (Life Raft). Two months later he managed to rent his own apartment in Poligono, near central Athens. “I make around 400 euros per month, my rent is 100. People at Schedia helped me furnish it,” he explained.

“Now I look forward to the start of the day so I can go to work,” he confessed. “I feel like I am developing skills that I never knew I had until now.” Besides material gains, as he noted, work has multiple benefits. “While on duty, I met many people who took me under their wing.” Though he’s worked since the age of 9, Panayiotis had never been to school and struggles with illiteracy. “I’ve started school and I’m doing very well. I’ve learned to read and write in five months.” He aims to take his education further. “This year, I will study Mesopotamia at the Steki Metanaston,” said Panayiotis in reference to the Exarchia bar and social center whose main goal is to help immigrants integrate into Greek society. “Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and look around in shock that I have a roof over my head.”

Noting the turbulent past few years, Panayiotis is surprised. During the months he was living in the Zappeio gardens, he says that despite being afraid at night, nobody bothered him. “The only time I was attacked and needed a doctor was one time in Alimos,” he revealed. “I was selling newspapers when three youths wearing Golden Dawn shirts started viciously attacking me.”

Fighting tooth and nail, 39-year-old Elisavet managed to keep her apartment in Kolonos after she was laid off from her job at a taverna. “My landlord is kind, otherwise I would be out in the cold,” she said. Having come to Greece from Albania at the age of 19, Elisavet has worked a number of jobs but this time she found that things had taken a turn for the worse. “Once I went for food rations at the church. When I asked for bread, they turned me away,” she remembered, “and since then I’ve never been back, I would rather cook soup every day.” At the beginning, when she had unemployment benefits, her daily life with her two sons was bearable. “However, when that ended, I fell into despair,” she said. A friend noticed her suffering and offered to help. “She gave me the phone number of Praksis [an NGO that combats socioeconomic exclusion] and explained to me that they could help.” Elisavet swallowed her pride and went to Praksis’s day center. “The social worker advised me, drafted my resume and helped me to send it off. Within two weeks I found a job.”

Rebound, shock and denial

“Panayiotis is not an anomaly. In fact, his story could become the norm,” Christos Alefantis, founder and editor-in-chief of Schedia, told Kathimerini. During his monthly staff meetings with the newspaper sellers, the most poignant moments are “when one of the salesmen says they’ve found a home or they’ve found another job and is leaving the paper,” he said. He revealed that over 200 people have been hired as sellers for the newspaper, but only around 150 are working at any given time. “The people who sell our paper do not have to be sleeping in the streets. They come from all forms of homelessness,” Alefantis explained. “We have one person who lost everything and is staying at his sister’s house. We have a 60-year-old man who has a home, but no water or electricity.”

“The longer someone has been homeless, the longer it takes for them to get back on their feet,” Ioanna Pertsinidou, a social worker with Praksis’s Syn sto Plyn program, told Kathimerini. “We had one couple in their 50s who ended up in the streets quite suddenly. The only reason they came to the day center was to ask for work. They wouldn’t even accept our offer to let them use our bathroom facilities. They spent six months on the streets before finally going into a shelter. Denial’s a powerful thing, and we’ve had even more dogged characters pass through our doors.”