Marialena, a 42-year-old homeless former drug addict who suffers from AIDS, sleeps underneath a bridge in a run-down neighbourhood of central Athens.
Her predicament is extreme, but it is not unique. Since the debt crisis erupted in 2009, hundreds of thousands of Greeks have lost their jobs and an increasing number of people in the country are now finding themselves living on the margins of society and sleeping on the street.
1 / 23
"I found myself wondering, what has happened to my country? What is wrong with this world?"
Marialena’s tears ran down her face onto the dirty mattress where she and her boyfriend Dimitrios have been sleeping day in, day out, for over a year, under a bridge in one of Athens’ most run-down neighborhoods.
Marialena, 42, is a homeless AIDS patient and a former drug addict on a Methadone rehab program.
Athens is full of sad stories like hers – of once ordinary people with a job and family who found themselves on the fringes of society after the country’s economic crisis began in 2009. Up until a few years ago, homelessness was relatively unusual in this country of close family ties, but nowadays stories like Marialena’s are increasingly common.
As Dimitrios tries – without any gloves – to clean the bleeding gashes on her arm, a rat makes its way behind their mattress.
Dimitrios, 51 – who is divorced with a 21-year-old daughter and a 20-year-old son - became homeless three years ago when he lost his job as a dancer in a Greek folk-dancing troupe.
“I want to die, this is not life - it’s a nightmare”, “I’m gone get sick and die,” Marialena cried out as her greenish-blue eyes filled with tears.
Michael, a 36-year-old man from the Greek island of Rhodes, sits on a plastic chair nearby, in the little area that they all call home.
Michael was a receptionist at a hotel that went bankrupt in late 2011. He couldn’t find a job and after a few months became homeless. Two months later, he was diagnosed with cancer in his thyroid and lymph nodes. Michael usually lives on the steps of a Greek Orthodox Church but he spends time “under the bridge” with his other homeless friends.
One mattress down is Giorgos, a 50-year-old man from Athens who was forced to shut his billiards club several years ago, spent time in prison for not paying his social security debts, and now takes medication for depression. Next to him is Vassilis, 35, who has been homeless for over seven years and works odd jobs for small tips. He has spent time in mental institutions on several occasions.
In a square nearby is Stephanos, 42, a soft-spoken man who worked for over 10 years in a well-known men’s clothing shop in central Athens. The shop closed on October 12, 2012 and a few months later when Stephanos could not pay his rent, he found shelter along with other homeless and drug addicts in a square in central Athens.
Dimitrios is like a father figure for his girlfriend Marialena and the few others who live under the bridge. “I feel responsible for all those lost souls,” he says as he rearranges the plastic chairs there.
“I had many dreams,” says Marialena. “I wanted to become a dancer or a doctor - the only dream I have now is to survive the day and eventually find a home.”
The numbers paint a tragic picture of homelessness rising rapidly in Greece as it struggles through its most troubled period since World War II.
Since the debt crisis erupted in 2009, hundreds of thousands of Greeks have lost their jobs or businesses and the unemployment rate touched what was then a record 27 percent in February this year, compared to just 9 percent in February 2009. Homelessness has likewise risen, and the nongovernmental organisation Klimaka estimated there were around 20,000 homeless in Greece in 2012.
EU data shows that Greece has the highest jobless rate across the 27-nation bloc. The Greek statistics agency estimates that since the start of the crisis, 700-1,000 Greeks have been losing their jobs daily. Of an estimated 1.3 million unemployed Greeks, some 225,000 are receiving handouts from the state.
NGOs like Klimaka and Praxis, as well as the Red Cross, the Athens municipality and the Church of Greece are all helping by offering food, clothing and shoes as well as washing facilities and shelter in some cases.
But those are never enough to deal with the rising numbers: homeless people, some of them old and sick, are a common sight everywhere in Athens.
According to a study by Klimaka, six out of 10 homeless people lost their home in the past two years. Forty-seven percent of them have children.
In 2011, 3.4 million people in Greece were living at risk of poverty and social exclusion, a Eurostat report said. That translates as 31 percent of the population, up from 27.7 percent in 2010.
Over 15 percent of Greeks were unable to cover their basic needs in 2011, Eurostat said - or nearly double the EU average of 8.8 percent.
This group includes people who cannot afford the following: rent or paying off debt; heating; unexpected expenses; a meal of meat or fish every two days; a week-long holiday away from home; a car; a washing machine; a colour television and a telephone.
After writing this blog I found myself wondering, what has happened to my country? What is wrong with this world?
(CORRECTED: A reference to incorrect figures on homelessness attributed to the NGO Praxis were deleted from the fourteenth paragraph and replaced with figures from the NGO Klimaka. Edits were made to wording in the same paragraph.)