The ‘quiet desperation’ of homeless people in Greece

Published: 29 January 2013 14:24 CET

By Hellenic Red Cross and Giovanni Zambello

For the last two years, ‘L*’ has been living on the streets of Athens, finding accommodation in abandoned vehicles and carparks. His last job was as a mechanic in a small business that closed three years ago. Before that, he had only short-term, unstable jobs, with no chance to save for leaner times.

Apart from a sister – who L no longer sees – he has no family, no supports that might help him back on his feet. Neither does he have any friends, due to  his ‘stiff personality and sporadic bouts of anger,’ as he admitted to the staff of the Hellenic Red Cross who visited him.

L is 60-years-old and provides a typical example of what is happening in Greece. Since the onset of the economic crisis, the quality of life has deteriorated not just for people who were already vulnerable, but also for those with formerly prosperous lives. Many now admit that the good times they enjoyed before look like a faded memory.

One sign of this transformation is the 20-25 per cent increase in the number of people living on the streets – especially in Athens. Many of today’s homeless belong to the so-called ‘new poor’, those previously enjoying a good standard of living, who have seen their aspirations crushed by the economic downturn.

When he became homeless, L started drinking to deal with the anxiety of his situation. “Food has never been the biggest problem, thanks to the solidarity of the people in this area and the support of local churches,” he says. “But what I would need is to find a job, make some money, rent an apartment and live a decent life. This all seems very hard to achieve.”

As he talks, there is a sense of quiet desperation. Distress, yes, but also an acceptance of the uncertainty of life. He sees no prospect for the future, but fears a life – and death – among the ignored. “I just don’t want to be gone in such conditions: alone, neglected, unnoticed.”

The Hellenic Red Cross has provided social care and services to vulnerable groups throughout the economic crisis. Volunteers and staff carry out street-work in Athens and surrounding areas, and social workers, nurses and volunteers distribute basic items, such as blankets and food, and provide information about other services that are available.

Many other Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies have increased their social programmes in response to the crisis, but have also intensified policy dialogue with governments and international institutions in order to raise awareness of the growing needs.

At the start of 2013, almost five years after the onset of the crisis, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) launched a one-and-a-half year project aimed at a better understanding of the changing humanitarian needs across Europe and Central Asia in the context of the economic crisis and to define the required response.

Starting with an online survey among National Societies, the project ultimately plans to make available effective support tools geared towards improving National Societies’ response mechanisms to the current crisis.

* Name withheld on request