Amid poverty surge, bus helps Greece’s homeless


Outside the headquarters of Greece’s governing political party is a moving snapshot of what a seven-year financial crisis can do to a country: A central Athens square where refugees rest, police chase petty criminals, and the homeless wait for meals handed out by charities.

Now there’s a new feature on the square — a converted public bus where people living on the streets can take a hot shower and pick up clean underwear and a plastic bag of toiletries handed out by volunteers.

After a 10-minute visit, one man, his eyes still red from the hot water, looked overcome with emotion. “It’s much better. Thank you. I thank them for this,” said the man, who declined to provide his name, before slowly walking away.

Poverty rates have surged here since the start of the crisis in late 2009, with nearly 36 percent of the country living in financial distress, according to the European Union’s statistics agency, Eurostat. Nearly one in four Greeks is unemployed and receives no benefits. State funding has increased for homeless programs, but so has bureaucracy.

The shower bus program started in late November, with plans to rotate around 12 sites in the city. So far it can only set up at one of those locations, across the street from the headquarters of Greece’s ruling left-wing party, SYRIZA.

“The bus needs electricity, water input and a sewage outlet — that’s not always easy to find on a street corner. There are many more places that need this facility,” said Ioanna Pertsinidou, head of anti-poverty campaigns at Praksis, a Greek charity that runs the privately-funded program.

“We need to be more mobile. When people have been living on the street for a while, they find it hard to deal with any kind of authority. So we have to go where the problem is and help there.”