Walking Athen’s streets to support city’s homeless

Published: 2 February 2016 16:13 CET

By Nigel Ede, British Red Cross

I arrive at the family shelter run by the Hellenic Red Cross around 7 pm after work. A cold night is expected so I am well wrapped. Aggelos and Alexandra who help manage the shelter have spent much of the afternoon preparing bags with a blanket, dry food, toiletries and bottled water. Sofia, Matina, Dimitris - volunteers specialised in search and rescue and first aid - are busy with final preparations. In the basement, two large caldrons of water come to the boil to fill large thermoses lined up on the counter.

Hot tea and smiles to the homeless

By 8pm we are driving slowly down the narrow streets of Athens towards Victoria Square. We scan the pavements and alleyways for telltale signs; a mattress with personal possessions or a cardboard windbreak, propped up to protect from bitter gusts.

We stop. Aggelos and Alexandra walk over to an alleyway where several people are lying down. I’m asked to hold the cups loaded with tea and spoonfuls of sugar. Sofia, Dimitris and I bring the cups and some bags to the homeless.

Sometimes the person is asleep and we leave the tea and the bag quietly by their side but out of sight from others. If awake Aggelos gently asks some questions and tells them in different languages about the two centres in Attica where they can get food, a hot shower, a safe place to rest, and if needed help in finding their family members.

Many people have made the streets their home and are a common sight as Greece struggles with terrible economic hardship. Each night the volunteers walk a different route to reach as many rough sleepers as they can.

Support to stranded migrants

I have originally come to Athens to assist the Hellenic Red Cross in incorporating a cash component into the assistance they provide to the tens of thousands of migrants arriving weekly on their shores.  Basic aid items such as blankets, food and toiletries are often difficult to carry on the move and are at times provided by many organizations along the way, leading to wastage. Cash, if safely provided to those that need it, could flexibly help to meet the diverse needs of the migrants. Most of all it offers some dignity; something that for many migrants has been in short supply.

After a number of stops we arrive at Victoria Square, a congregation point for migrants. As our Hellenic Red Cross van approaches, people emerge from all directions and calmly form an orderly line. Hot tea and bags are distributed while Aggelos asks for their age and where they come from. Information on where they can find shelter and support is shared in English, French, Arabic and Farsi.

Aggelos tells me later that the majority of people come from North Africa and have been left stranded in Athens due to the strict border regulations only allowing Syrians, Iraqis and Afghanis to continue their journey. The Hellenic Red Cross does not differentiate between those in need; whether the destitute and homeless or those escaping war and persecution.

By 11 pm the tea and other supplies are finished and we head home. The temperature has dropped to two degrees. The volunteers will repeat the street walk when temperatures are close to freezing and supplies, often locally donated, are available. In the meantime, the Hellenic Red Cross is preparing to support even greater numbers of vulnerable people in the coming months.

Nigel Ede is part of the British Red Cross surge team, working with the Hellenic Red Cross and the IFRC to introduce cash transfers alongside the national society’s existing relief response.