Wed, Feb 15, 2012 - Page 9 News List

As austerity sinks in, Greece is bombarded by homelessness

By Helena Smith  /  The Observer, ATHENS

The eurozone finance ministers’ message to Greece on Thursday night was stark: There will be no new bailout — and the country will go bankrupt — unless Athens found a further 325 million euros (US$427 million) of budget cuts, on top of the 3.3 billion euros of austerity measures already promised.

There are now going to be more cuts in a country already reeling from an unprecedented squeeze on spending that has been accompanied by higher taxes.

And that, undoubtedly, will mean more customers at Klimaka, a red building in the heart of the capital that is a shelter for the homeless.

Few institutions have better first-hand experience of the impact of Greece’s austerity measures — and few have better first-hand knowledge of Klimaka — than Lambros, an out-of-work plasterer who joined the ranks of Greece’s unemployed when poverty caught up with him last year.

“From one day to the next, the economic crisis hit me,” the 55-year-old father of two said.

“Suddenly I was fired without any compensation from the company I was working at. Two months later I couldn’t even afford my rent,” he said. “All my savings had gone into paying medical bills for my late wife.”

Evicted from his apartment, the softly spoken plasterer then joined the thousands of Greeks, hit by job losses, wage cuts, tax rises and runaway prices, who have been forced to move outdoors.

“I didn’t want to burden my children with my problems because they have problems, too. I didn’t want to sleep on the streets either. So for four months I slept in my car,” he said, pointing to a battered, bag-filled Toyota outside the shelter.

Until, that is, he could no longer afford gasoline for the vehicle that had become his home.

“Then I heard about Klimaka, but it was a big step asking them for a bed,” he said. “I felt very ashamed.”

A new underclass has emerged in Greece. A recession that began with the global financial downturn in 2008, but which has worsened dramatically as a result of EU and IMF-dictated austerity in the past two years, has left 20,000 Greeks without a roof over their heads, according to social workers and non-governmental organizations.

In a nation where joblessness is now more than 20 percent, with no family untouched by it, the sight of people sleeping on pavements and park benches, in metro stations and shopping arcades, doorways and cars, is the most visible sign yet of an economy in freefall.

More than 10,000 people have been decanted on to the streets of Athens, home to the vast majority of Greece’s 11 million population. The government has just announced emergency aid for the destitute and the Greek Orthodox Church has revealed it is feeding 250,000 people a day.

“Before the crisis, homelessness wasn’t visible in Greek society and was very low compared with other EU countries,” said Ada Alamanou, Klimaka’s spokesperson. “But in the last few years it has increased by 25 percent.”

“We call them the ‘new homeless’ because it is a rise that can be attributed solely to economic reasons,” she said.

“They are not people who have psychological problems or are suffering from drug and alcohol abuse. They are people who haven’t been able to pay off their credit cards and mortgages. The crisis is hitting the middle class,” she said.

Even before Greece’s debt drama, a fifth of its population lived below the poverty line. Now more than a third can be considered officially impoverished, according to the European statistics agency eurostat.

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