By Yiorgos Karahalis
Ragged clothes, small piles of belongings and a bleak future, Greece’s new army of homeless have swelled in numbers since the debt crisis hit the country.
As part of ideas to highlight the story that has dominated headlines for the past two years, I wanted to illustrate the emerging problem of homelessness in a country which has seen a rise in the number of homeless by 20-25 percent in the last two years alone – a staggering rise in a country where adult children live with their parents, in some cases until the day they get married, and pensions traditionally go to support young families.
Athens is the country’s largest city with an estimated population of five million and where the homeless problem is much more visible than anywhere else. Even its city center, a top tourist spot, sees dozens of homeless people having made building entrances and shop fronts their new home. Sleeping bags and cardboard boxes piled against walls, a few shopping bags of clothes and food their only belongings. Homelessness has now permeated all genders, races, ethnic backgrounds and social classes.
The large number has forced shelters to restrict people to a few nights stay before making way for new people. Many of those who are getting a hot meal or just a night sleep in the shelters, are still stunned by how fast their lives changed. One of them said he could not believe how quickly it happened, how he went from a homeowner with a job as a chef to a homeless person cooking in such a shelter. “We are all potentially homeless,” he said.
When I started getting out at nights to shoot the pictures I initially felt a bit scared that it could be a difficult task with people reacting to being photographed, exposure of their plight adding to their misery. It turned out that my presence either in the shelters or on the streets was largely unnoticed by most of them, with some also eager to chat with me.
One even offered a glimmer of hope. Stathis, in his early thirties who had his right leg amputated and lived on the street just a stone’s throw from the parliament, the target of hundreds of demonstrations, said his luck could one day turn.
“I don’t let myself be dragged down,” he said days after his pouch with all his personal documents was stolen, another setback, especially for someone constantly checked by police. “I don’t worry too much. My luck could turn and things could turn out ok eventually.”
It is shocking how common this has become and how our perception has changed. If you saw a person sleeping on the streets of Athens 10 years ago, chances were it would be one of a handful of known individuals who roamed the streets and were cared for by the neighborhood. No more. Now their numbers have swelled with social safety nets in danger of ripping completely.