World News

12.22.13

A Dickensian Christmas For Greece’s New Poor

Greece is edging out of recession thanks to EU bailouts, but for many from the country’s former middle class, homelessness and extreme poverty haunt the New Year.

It’s 5pm on a frigid Monday afternoon and people are starting to line up outside the bright red stucco Klimaka homeless support center in the central Athens neighborhood of Gazi.  Serving tables are set up under lemon trees in the open courtyard. The savory smell of stewed meat drifts through the cold air.  Overhead, a white canopy painted with brightly colored flowerpots tempers the rain and wind.  A year ago, this center fed around 60 people a week.  Now more than 200 often show up for the twice-weekly meals.   “We only have enough for 160 people today,” says Ava Alamanou, coordinator of the Klimka homeless support project as she looks out at the growing crowd. “A month ago we could feed 250, but this week supplies are running short. If more come, we will scrape together something from the kitchen to feed them, but it’s not easy.”

The Klimaka center, like many NGOs across Greece, is picking up where the Greek government has failed.  Klimaka offers support—psychological, social, and for basic primary needs—to a growing number of homeless and near-homeless people in Greece.  It is not a true homeless shelter per se, but there are nine beds where the most vulnerable can sleep; and when the weather is particularly frigid, Alamanou says they can always put a few more in the offices and corridors.  Many of the people who come here spend their nights in dedicated shelters and homeless hostels across the city. Others sleep on the streets.  On Mondays and Thursdays, meals are served at 5pm to whomever comes—no questions asked. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, people line up to take hot showers.  During the five years Alamanou has been at the center, she has seen the face of Greece’s disadvantaged population evolve.   “There is a profound change in the type and number of homeless people in Greece right now,” she tells The Daily Beast.  “The traditional homeless were people with mental health issues and chemical dependencies.  Different people are now homeless because of the crisis. We call them neo-homeless. We used to serve primarily non-Greeks, now it is half and half, Greeks and foreigners.”

There are more than 20,000 homeless people in Greece today, by Klimaka’s estimates; that’s over 30 percent more than there were in 2009 when the economic crisis began.  But there are many more people balancing precariously on the verge of indigence.  Artemis Stefanoudaki, a 38-year-old photographer, lives on the razor-thin margin between poverty and destitution.  She lives with her 12-year-old daughter in a borrowed apartment in the Pangrati district of Athens.  Stefanoudaki burns candles in every corner of the modest apartment instead of turning on the lights to save electricity.  She only runs the heat when her daughter is at home. 

A few years ago, Stefanoudaki’s star was rising as a successful studio portrait photographer with her own business.  But now she has very little work and she carries heavy debts.  Her trouble began when she took a tax amnesty offered by the Greek government, paying a flat rate tax bill of €12,000 in exchange for avoiding an audit, effectively closing her books to the tax authorities.  The payment, which she says was not optional because audits tend to cost much more in fines for tax mistakes, wiped out her savings, and she hasn’t been able to get back on her feet financially since.  “I paid the money because I felt I had no choice,” she says.  “They warned that if I didn’t pay the big tax the revenue office would find many small mistakes in my bookkeeping that would end up in bigger fines. So I paid.”

“No one invites anyone over anymore,” says Scocozza. “Everyone is ashamed of not having heating or enough food.”

Her ex-husband is also out of work and can’t pay child support, so every day her former mother-in-law brings one portion of food for her granddaughter. Stefanoudaki fends for herself, often skipping meals for cheaper snacks.  Increasingly, she resorts to bartering to make ends meet.  She is currently trading photography work for English lessons for her daughter.  Greeks have always had to educate their children through private tutors in certain subjects, but recent education cuts have made the situation is worse.  Extras like foreign languages and Greek classics have been all but obliterated from the national curriculum.

The hardest part for Stefanoudaki is remembering when things were good. “I didn’t think about how much I earned. I didn’t always appreciate what I had. I took vacations and had friends around for dinner all the time,” she says.  “Then when things started to go bad, it happened very quickly. Suddenly I went from living comfortably to being very poor. I miss good company and laughing with friends. We used to talk about dreams and the future. Now when we get together we talk about our problems. Because of that, people just don’t get together as much. It’s too depressing.” 

Stefanoudaki certainly misses what money used to buy, but even more than that, she says she longs for the peace of mind that her salary once provided.  “I am in a constant battle with myself.  I’m tired. I’m stressed. I miss being calm. I want to daydream about things I will do in the future again, not worry about how to pay the electricity bill.”

Like most Greeks living on the edge, Stefanoudaki blames the government for years of corruption that led Greece to the edge of the economic abyss—but she also blames the banks for creating a credit-based debt trap she now finds herself in.  She took loans for vacations and photography equipment, even when she had enough cash to pay outright, she says.   The money came easily, and, like many Greeks, she says she was greedy.  Banks mishandled the situation, she says.  But the Greek people allowed them to do so.  “It’s not just the government that is to blame,” she says.  “People say the banks destroyed Greece, but each of us who has a loan signed a piece of paper promising to pay it back.”

Most Greeks now define their lives as before and after “the crisis,” referring to the period beginning in 2009 when the bottom fell out of the economy and middle-class Greeks started losing their fiscal footing.  Even those with extra cash are not spending it, either out of fear that their fortune will dry up or out of guilt because their friends aren’t doing as well.  “No one wants to walk around seen carrying shopping bags, even if they can afford to spend money,” says Stamatina Lagoudaki, 51, who owns a women’s dress shop in the wealthier Kolonaki neighborhood of Athens.  She points to her store full of inventory and to the empty storefronts on the streets as proof that there is no money in circulation.  “I don’t know what is going to happen.  The future for us is so uncertain,” she says.  “They say 40 percent of the businesses in Athens have closed shop.  I can’t help [but] worry that mine will be next.”

Stella Belia, 46, and Grazia Scocozza, 54, are a lesbian couple raising five children between them.  Scocozza was previously married and now retired. She lives on her late husband’s pension, which was recently cut from €1,600 to €800 a month.  Belia, who has a post-graduate degree, makes a little less than that as a head mistress at a private school. Her salary was cut in half last year.  They both blame years of corrupt governments for the crisis and they are increasingly bitter about their situation.  “It is an insult to be paid so little money,” says Belia, sitting in the dark living room of their tiny home.  “The prime minister doesn’t give such little money to the man who shines his shoes.” 

Scocozza’s children, ages 25, 16 and 14, and Belia’s five-year-old twins, barely scrape by.  They own their home in a working-class district of Athens, but they can’t afford to run the heat except when temperatures dip below freezing.  And because they don’t pay rent, they are subject to high property taxes geared at wealthier homeowners.  Most of their income now goes to taxes and utilities.  There is little left for food and medicines.  This year, like last year, they won’t exchange Christmas presents. And they won’t invite anyone to the house to celebrate the holidays. “No one invites anyone over anymore,” says Scocozza. “Everyone is ashamed of not having heating or enough food.”

Everything about Scocozza and Belia’s life has changed in the last five years since the crisis began.  They used to give their children’s old clothing to charities when they outgrew them.  Now they rely on the same charities for help.  Scocozza, who has diabetes, does not go to the doctor regularly.  She buys her medication from pharmacies that sell nearly-expired drugs at a discount.  Their diets have limited protein, and instead of going to supermarkets, they tend to go to the city’s open-air vegetable markets just before they close when vendors sell leftover produce cheaper than the market price.   “We used to have a different life before the crisis,” says Scocozza.  “We used to go to the theater and even get a babysitter.  Now we’re scouring stores for deals and trying not to show the children how worried we are.”

The hardest part of the crisis for them is that they see things getting worse, not better.  “Who knows how this will end?  Two years ago we could not imagine we could survive the way we are living now,” says Belia.  “But we haven’t hit rock bottom yet. We haven’t had to rummage through the rubbish like some people we know.”

Belia’s children are too young to understand a life different to what they know. But because Scocozza’s children are older, they are suffering more.  “We are all going through a collective depression,” she says.  “The children are not happy.  My 25-year-old daughter told me she feels useless. She wakes up at night afraid.  She makes 15 euros a day handing out flyers a couple days a week even though she is educated.  She sees no future for herself and I don’t see one for her either.”

“Our children are part of a lost generation,” says Belia, who sees how cuts at her own school have affected the students.  She is worried that Greek children today will grow up almost like post-war children because of cuts in education, bad diets and lack of hope.  Teachers are underpaid—if they are paid at all since many public schools have frozen salaries.  “It’s hard to dedicate yourself to your students when you don’t know how to pay your bills and feed your own children,” she says.  “School should be the place where children can flourish, but that’s not the case in Greece right now.”

Because Belia is employed and they own their home outright, they do not qualify for government programs designed to help families in need.   “Things could get worse, we just don’t know. Maybe they will get much worse before things improve,” says Belia.  “When we wake up in the morning, we don’t know how the day is going to end.” 

If things do get worse, they may be forced to join hundreds of other struggling families who have turned to NGOs to pick up the slack where state-funded social services have failed them. Praksis is an NGO that runs free medical clinics in Athens and Thessaloniki in the northern part of the country. It was founded to assist Greece’s vast illegal immigrant population, many of whom are in transit from Afghanistan, Iraq and sub-Saharan Africa to Europe via Greece. Their free clinic in central Athens is housed in a shabby apartment that smells of feverish bodies and pungent medicine.  The clinic offers free services on either a walk-in or appointment basis, rotating a volunteer dentist, general practitioner, gynecologist, endocrinologist and pediatrician who time-share tiny dim-lit examination rooms.  The waiting room is filled with women holding wailing babies. Men sit on the stone stairway leading up to the clinic. Many have visible injuries or are so sick with flu they cannot hold their heads up.  The view from the windows is the run-down Villa Amalias anarchist squat house, which was raided last year and now guarded by helmet-wearing riot police who patrol the surrounding streets carrying guns, tear gas canisters and protective shields.

The doctors see between 20 and 30 patients every day, and Moudatsou says there’s been an increase in Greek families in the waiting room.  But because their program was designed for foreign nationals—many without legal papers or social services—the center had to come up with a different strategy to help Greek families.  “We designed a program for 200 vulnerable Greek families who fit a criteria based on income, family size and employment status,” says Maria Moudatsou, a forensic psychologist at the center who doubles as the director of communications and fundraising.  “But we’ve already served nearly 600 since the program began last year.” 

Moudatsou says the Greek family program, which has never been advertised, focuses on homeless prevention.  She says they have saved many families from the streets.  In most cases, families who once lived in middle-class comfort are ill-equipped to deal with stifling poverty, and because the government has been slow to acknowledge the problem, many are at risk of falling through the cracks.  Praksis social workers make home visits and Moudatsou says they are often shocked by the squalid conditions many Greek families are forced to live under. Many families they help are just a few steps away from forced into the streets.  “Homelessness wasn’t even a term recognized by the Greek government until 2012,” she says, making that point that without that crucial recognition, no state-funded preemptive programs have been designed, let alone implemented yet.  She says that in the meantime, they are doing the work instead.  They try to counsel people to retrain when they have lost jobs and try to get back into the job market, even if it means working in the black economy or being under-employed.  But countless times they have had to intervene on an even more basic level, often countering angry landlords who are trying to evict families due to non-payment of rent.  “In Greece there is no welfare state.  Things should be structured and there should be a national strategic plan that is actually implemented instead of debated,” she says. “It should not be that NGOs do the primary work for them.” 

In exchange for all the work they are doing on the state’s behalf, Moudatsou says they asked the Greek government for the use of any abandoned public buildings that could be used as either homeless shelters or support center for homeless families.  “At first they agreed, but then the bureaucracy took over and we have never gotten a building,” she says.  They are desperately in need of more space and better facilities.  Between the two free clinics, they have seen more than 30,000 patients in the last year for everything from common flu and cavities to cancer. 

Even when the government programs do work, as in the case of some social health services, they often backfire.  Coralie Gerardou is a 42-year-old divorced graphic designer who is raising her nine-year-old daughter on $550 a month in alimony.  She has ping-ponged between jobs for the last year, often working in the black market at five-star hotels and other tourist spots to try to eke out a living. She and her father once owned a successful Spanish tapas restaurant in central Athens, but it went bankrupt in 2010.  In 2011 she suffered a nervous breakdown, which she says is held against her since she was treated under the social health program.   She says she also feels discrimination when she is applying for a job because she is a single mother and needs to be available to pick up her daughter after school. “Most of the shifts available for even the worst jobs are only evening and weekends,” she says, rolling a cigarette nervously at an outdoor café in a suburb of Athens.  “They look at my CV like it is a piece of toilet paper. Either they say no right away or give me a five-day trial which is a way to get people to work for free.”

She once had a job working in a museum, but because the hours conflicted with her daughter’s school, she often brought her daughter to work.  “That didn’t last long,” Gerardou says. “There is really no option for me.” For the past five months, she has been getting assistance from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, which was founded by a wealthy shipping tycoon in 1996 and offers short-term assistance to single mothers and other vulnerable Greeks.  When that ends next month—the program only sponsors people for six months—she says she doesn’t know what she will do.  “What can I do?” she asks, tears welling up in her eyes.  “I have this dream of a permanent day job where I go to work and then come home to take care of my daughter. I am not asking to go on big vacations or have a new car. I just want to provide for my child.  But there are others much worse than me. At least I have a roof over my head, for not at least.”

Back at the Klimaka homeless support center, Alamanou braces for what she believes is the worst yet to come even though Greece is edging out of recession thanks to a series of bailouts the by the European Union.  But it will take a long time for positive growth to trickle down to those who have crossed the poverty line.  Her goal used to be to have no homeless people to serve. Now she just wants the neo homeless to get back under a roof before they become acclimated to destitution.  When people are homeless for a short period like many of the newly poor, they still have hope, she says.  “We care about the traditional homeless, but we are forced to focus on more acute problem which is the neo homeless now.  But there are no real measures to prevent homeless, only services like ours that kick in after the fact,” she says.  “There are no social structures to combat poverty, and when they do exist on paper, they are not implemented.  It’s not proactive, it’s always reactive. We are always picking up the pieces of these shattered lives. It would be nice for a change to stop them from falling.”