BBC News

Meeting the 'new homeless' on Greece's freezing streets

By Mark Lowen
BBC News, Athens

media captionEastern Europe's recent freezing weather has hit the poorest hard, particularly in Greece

In the heart of central Athens, a stone's throw from the city's glorious ancient sites, another face of today's Greece is on show.

Hundreds weave their way around the small, bare courtyard of the municipal soup kitchen, queuing patiently.

Visitors have gone up by a quarter in the past few months as homelessness here reaches new heights.

"This centre was founded years ago to face the problems that exist in every big city - people addicted to drugs, alcohol and so on," says Dimitra Nousi, the director of the project.

"But suddenly it became somewhere that has to face the poverty of the crisis.

"It's a completely different phenomenon - we're still shocked about it."

'A different poverty'

Homelessness has soared by an estimated 25% since 2009 as Greece spirals further into its worst post-war economic crisis.

The country is now in its fifth straight year of recession and the official unemployment rate is nudging 20%, exacerbated by the austerity measures being pushed through in return for more bail-out money.

Greeks now speak of another section of society: the "new homeless".

"They don't have the 'traditional profile' of homeless people," says Ms Nousi.

"They are well dressed and well educated. Until last year they had a good flat or a nice car - and now they have nothing.

"So it's another kind of misery - another kind of poverty. We were not prepared for this poverty, but it exists."

One of the new regulars at the kitchen is Vicky Kolozi.

A former journalist with the state broadcaster ERT, she lost her job a year ago and now cannot afford to feed herself and her daughter.

"It is hard to feel that I have to depend on this now," she tells me.

"I have dreams and when you come here, the dreams go out of yourself. You must accept reality - and the reality is very difficult."

Nowhere to go

And that reality is particularly harsh at the moment as Greece shivers in freezing temperatures.

Snow has blanketed much of the north, where at least one homeless man died, and those out on the streets are finding it hard to cope.

Spiros, 82, is left huddling beneath his blankets next to Monastiraki square in central Athens.

"It's an intense, ugly cold," he says, coughing violently. "But where else can I go?

"The shelters are full of drug-abusers and my leg is too bad to move. Sleeping out here feels like I'm already in my grave."

As temperatures have plummeted, various charities have swung into action with emergency night-time deliveries.

The Red Cross is one - despatching teams across the capital, armed with blankets and food supplies.

With the sense that a humanitarian crisis is now growing, as well as an economic one, charities are reinforcing their operations in Greece.

Another organisation, Doctors of the World, has recently recalled Greek staff posted elsewhere in the world to help back home.

The Red Cross team works steadily until the early hours, combing the streets of the city for those sleeping outside.

Many homeless people are clearly visible, propped up against banks and other symbols of affluence, but some lie buried behind subway tunnels and in parks.

As we work our way through a cobbled pedestrian street, the volunteers are stopped by a couple who hand over jackets they want to contribute.

It is yet another side of this economic crisis: the solidarity between ordinary people.

There is a sense of a nation pulling together in adversity - of the traditional Greek hospitality growing ever more urgent.

But winter is marching on here, and so is Greece's economic crisis. And it is a toxic mix for those left to suffer.