Crisis stretches welfare groups, prompts a change in tactics

Before the crisis, at this time of year, the staff at the Hellenic Red Cross would be busy organizing a Christmas spread for Athens’s poor. On Christmas Eve and the day itself, people would start lining up from as early as 6 a.m. to get their holiday meal. The atmosphere was not always one of brotherhood and love. In fact, volunteers say that they would often get complaints from Greeks if foreigners stood in the line ahead of them. Starting with 500 portions of food in 1995, the organization ended up serving 2,500 people at the Christmas soup kitchen in 2011. The biggest problem with receiving such a high number of people is that the supervisors could not distinguish between those who were genuinely in need and those who were not.

“The food programs were abused,” says Dora Papadopoulou, a regional social welfare manager for the Hellenic Red Cross. “When you had to manage such a large volume of people you couldn’t set criteria and conditions. You couldn’t ask someone standing in line to provide proof of his or her necessity. The policy was simply that if you turned up you ate.”

Four years ago, NGOs, the Church of Greece and municipal welfare authorities tried to come up with ways to address the problems that had emerged with the onset of the crisis. The way assistance is distributed today is very different than it was in past, partly because the needs are so much greater, not just in the food itself but also in volunteer time and offering specialized help for those who are most at risk.

The Hellenic Red Cross will not be serving Christmas dinner this year as it did not last year, as the 180,000 euros it takes to fund the Christmas and Easter meals has instead been earmarked to help single-parent families living in poverty. That entails more than 300 at-risk families receiving supermarket coupons from the organization every month to cover their shopping needs.

“The needs in a family are constant. People aren’t hungry just four days a year,” says Papadopoulou.

The Archbishopric of Athens used to distribute around 3,500 portions of food every day to its parishes in the capital. Now it helps 10,000 people a day, a number that has remained more or less steady for the past two years. The only big change in its program that it has observed is at the City of Athens Reception and Solidarity Center in downtown Athens.

“Around 1,400 people used to eat there every day before the crisis, mostly migrants. Now less than half are foreigners and the number of portions served has dropped to 1,000,” says Father Vassileios Havatzas, general director of the Archbishopric’s welfare fund. That soup kitchen was started by the Church with the aim of helping migrants, but police sweeps in the city center and tougher detention terms have led to a drop in their numbers.

The City of Athens runs its own soup kitchen in the same location near Omonia, feeding people twice a day. The daily average number of portions is between 1,200 and 1,400, depending on the funds or products available. One of the ideas the municipal authority is considering is having smaller soup kitchens operate in the city’s different districts rather than one single big one in the center.

For the past three years, certain particularly vulnerable families that have come to the municipal authority’s attention have been receiving special care. Since 2011, a group of 15 women, members of the En Athinais Alumni Society of Anatolia College, have been regularly providing 10 families living on the poverty line with food and clothing, as well as medical and dental care.

They work together with the City of Athens to locate the families most in need.

“The soup kitchens just aren’t enough. A family can’t live on a plate of food,” says Maria Vogiatzoglou, one of the volunteers. Earlier this month they distributed special Christmas parcels with food and gifts.