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Homelessness a growing problem in Greece

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A woman in Kos, Greece, appeals for donations from passers-by. Homelessness and extreme poverty have increased as Greece's economy has wavered. (Photo by Henrik Berger Jorgensen.)

Two men play backgammon in the small courtyard of an old house in Athens, where Klimaka, one of the few homeless shelters in the city, is headquartered.

One man looks up from his game when explains why he’s here:

“The economy.”

Greece has been teetering on the edge of default for months now. The government has imposed tough austerity measures required to get European bailout funds and Greece’s population is feeling the impact. New figures show Greek unemployment at more than 20-percent, and there’s been a rise in the number of homeless people.

Klimaka, which means “ladder” in ancient Greek, has been around for years, but in the past, most of the people it helped were addicts or people who had mental health issues.

The situation has changed with the financial crisis and rising unemployment, according to Ada Alamanou, who coordinates homeless support for Klimaka. She calls many of the people here the “new homeless.”

These are “people who, up until recently, had a good standard of living, and now they find themselves on the streets, because they have lost their jobs, and they have no support from family or for another network,” Alamanou said.

One of them is 60-year-old George Barkouris, who’s worked as a musician, a producer for Greek National Radio, and most recently as a computer technician. He said the computer work dried up in 2007.

“I was not prepared for this situation. I always lived like a middle-class person. I never thought it would be so bad for this country,” Barkouris said.

Sitting across from him is Leo, who doesn’t want to provide his last name. Until 2009, Leo, who’s 65, made his living painting religious icons. Then orders for his work fell off, and he couldn’t pay his bills. He’s been at Klimaka for six months, and he expects to see more people like him.

“It’s still early for the new homeless to hit the streets. Give it six to eight months,” he said, “then we’ll see them hitting the streets.”

He doesn’t think Greek politicians will fix the problems.

“I’m angry with the politicians, because nobody cared about the individual the past 25 years. There was always the easy solution, we’ll borrow. Nobody said how are we going to pay back the loans?” Leo said.

Leo and the other “new homeless” don’t have many options. Athens has a few state-run shelters, but they’re usually full, and so more and more people are relying on Klimaka, which doesn’t receive government funds for its work.

Effie Stamatogiannopoulou, a psychiatric nurse who volunteers at Klimaka, said about 600 people a week have been coming in for snacks, coffee, internet access and bathrooms.

Klimaka survives on donations, and donated blankets, food and clothing. The shelter has received so much media coverage that Greeks from abroad are sending money too.

Klimaka has only 10 beds and space on the floor for 15 more. But two or three times a week, Klimaka volunteers — many of them homeless as well — climb into a donated van and deliver aid to those on the streets.

At one point, the van stopped under a bridge in downtown Athens, where about two dozen North Africans were living. Immigrants are having a particularly hard time in Athens right now, and these young men from Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria asked the volunteers for food, water, pants and shoes.

One of them also asks for help with his residency papers. They’ve expired. The volunteers promise to send someone to help him in a couple of days.

Andreas Andriatis, who was recently living on the street after he lost his job in the tourism industry, is now part of the Klimaka volunteer team. He said it was a shock for him, winding up on the streets.

“I think a lot of people, they’re not thinking about these people, until it happens to them," Andriatis said.

But Andriatis has been lucky. He said he’s found a new job, and hopes he will start earning enough to get his own place again.

Leo, the icon painter, said he’s starting to get a few orders. And Barkouris said he’s optimistic about his own future and his country’s — but not because of Greece’s political class.

“We don’t have to expect anything from them," Barkouris said. "We have the power as people to go on. The only thing that matters is for the Greek population to be united, and I see a lot more Greek people in solidarity now.”

That solidarity seems to be making a difference for Klimaka as well.

The group is hoping to use the recent uptick in donations to find a bigger space — one that has enough room for 100 beds, instead of just ten.

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