Out of work and los­ing homes in Greece

‘What we’re see­ing is the wip­ing out of a lower-mid­dle class, or a for­mer lower-mid­dle class.’

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Steven Zeitchik

ATHENS — Michael Samolis is clean­shaven, wears sen­si­ble shorts and ra­di­ates a whiff of cologne. He once took classes at Columbia Univer­sity and at a tech­ni­cal in­sti­tute in New York, and he ran a suc­cess­ful truck­ing busi­ness in his na­tive Greece.

But as the 58-year-old spoke at a gath­er­ing spot for the des­ti­tute in Athens, he de­scribed a de­scent into home­less­ness that has be­come all too com­mon here since the na­tion’s eco­nomic cri­sis struck five years ago.

Steady work dis­ap­pears. Mea­ger sav­ings drain away. Wel­fare pro­gram ad­min­is­tra­tors shake their heads. And then, fi­nally, a con­fronta­tion with shat­ter­ing re­al­ity.

Cast out of his apart­ment more than two years ago when he could no longer af­ford the $450 rent, Samolis now lives in a shel­ter. He earns $15 a day selling street news­pa­pers.

“Some­times peo­ple meet me and they say, ‘You can’t be home­less, there’s no way,’ ” Samolis said on a re­cent af­ter­noon. “And I say, ‘What do you think home­less in Greece is? No clean

clothes and you smell like 55 pigs?’ It’s not like that any­more.”

Greece is seek­ing to pull it­self out of a fi­nan­cial quick­sand. Talks be­tween the coun­try’s rul­ing Syriza party and Euro­pean cred­i­tors to re­lease more than $8 bil­lion in bailout funds col­lapsed Sun­day night. Shortly af­ter­ward, Greek Prime Min­is­ter Alexis Tsipras re­leased a harshly worded state­ment that ac­cused cred­i­tors of “pil­lag­ing” his coun­try.

On Fri­day, Tsipras vis­ited an eco­nomic fo­rum in Rus­sia and sug­gested that his coun­try is “not afraid of head­ing to new seas and reach­ing new har­bors.”

The re­marks sug­gest that a fun­da­men­tal gap ex­ists be­tween the two sides over aus­ter­ity mea­sures — and, with a ma­jor pay­ment to the In­ter­na­tional Mon­e­tary Fund loom­ing, make de­fault and a Greek exit from the Eu­ro­zone seem more likely than they were even a few weeks ago.

In re­sponse to the grow­ing pos­si­bil­ity of a run on banks, the Euro­pean Cen­tral Bank on Fri­day in­creased its level of emer­gency liq­uid­ity.

Tsipras has also held out the pos­si­bil­ity of a closer al­liance with Rus­sia. At the fo­rum, he closed a pipeline deal with Moscow, viewed as a means of both giv­ing Greece more eco­nomic op­tions and in­creas­ing its lever­age with Euro­pean cred­i­tors, who have not taken kindly to the al­liance

But even as the toll of the cri­sis can be felt from the Mediter­ranean to the Macedonian bor­der, few con­se­quences are as in­sid­i­ous as the sud­den emer­gence of scores of cit­i­zens with­out a place to live.

Es­ti­mates vary, but some ex­perts peg the num­ber of new home­less as high as 20,000. More­over, nearly 20% of Greeks no longer have enough money to cover daily food ex­penses, ac­cord­ing to a re­cent study by the Or­ga­ni­za­tion for Eco­nomic Co­op­er­a­tion and De­vel­op­ment.

The na­tion’s un­em­ploy­ment rate is 26%, the high­est among 28 Euro­pean Union mem­bers.

At Athens’ many apart­ment build­ings, sto­ries are ram­pant of peo­ple delin­quent on so many months of rent that they sim­ply leave be­hind keys and fur­ni­ture, sneak­ing out in the mid­dle of the night.

Un­til five years ago, it was hard to imag­ine masses of peo­ple liv­ing on the streets here; home­less­ness was so neg­li­gi­ble that no one even both­ered to mea­sure. At the time, this was a strong wel­fare state with a rich tra­di­tion of fam­ily bonds. But aus­ter­ity has eroded the for­mer, and eco­nomic re­ces­sion has frayed the lat­ter.

The cri­sis has played out in a kind of domino ef­fect. What might be­gin as a hard- luck case or two soon cas­cades through fam­i­lies and so­cial groups. At some point there are too few roofs for too many rel­a­tives or friends.

Maria Gadov, the only child of a long­time Athens fam­ily, in­her­ited her par­ents’ ex­port busi­ness. Her fu­ture seemed bright as she stud­ied English at a Univer­sity of Michigan satel­lite cam­pus here.

But as Greece’s econ­omy de­te­ri­o­rated, so did the ex­port sec­tor. (Be­cause of the euro com­mon cur­rency, an­a­lysts say, costs are of­ten too high in Greece for ex­ports to be prof­itable.) Her busi­ness went belly up.

Gadov, now 46, found kitchen work at a sum­mer camp, along with a few other odd jobs. Soon those evap­o­rated too, and she couldn’t pay her rent. A friend took her in, but be­fore long the friend lost her job and apart­ment. By the end of 2013, Gadov was out on the street.

“The shel­ter gives us food and a place to sleep, but I worry if next month will keep look­ing like this, or next year,” she said. “But at least I’m not ter­ri­fied like I was at the be­gin­ning. I know I will not die be­ing home­less.”

Whole­sale mi­gra­tion out of apart­ments and into shel­ters is not com­mon even in re­ces­sion-struck coun­tries.

But what ex­perts say is also no­table about the newly home­less in Greece is that many have lengthy work his­to­ries and none of the ad­dic­tion or men­tal health is­sues of­ten as­so­ci­ated with liv­ing on the streets.

“What we’re see­ing is the wip­ing out of a lower-mid­dle class, or a for­mer lower-mid­dle class,” said Ro­man Gerodi­mos, an ex­pert on mod­ern Greek so­ci­ety at Bournemouth Univer­sity in Eng­land. “And we’re so in the mid­dle of it we can’t even know what it’s go­ing to mean, both for them and for so­ci­ety as a whole.”

The is­sue has cre­ated a new cul­tural mind-set in which poverty is an om­nipresent re­al­ity and a per­va­sive fear.

“I see my­self in them,” said Christos Ale­fan­tis, a jour­nal­ist who founded the street pa­per She­dia, de­scrib­ing the pub­li­ca­tion’s sales force. “Take away two or three pay­checks and they’re me, they’re so many of us.”

She­dia — the name trans­lates as “raft” — comes out monthly and chron­i­cles Athens life. Its ven­dors are al­lowed to keep half of the $3.50 price for each copy sold.

Over time, the num­ber of home­less seek­ing to sell She­dia rose far be­yond the pub­li­ca­tion’s needs. There is now an ap­pli­ca­tion and se­lec­tion process for the po­si­tions.

Un­der pres­sure from Euro­pean cred­i­tors to cut ex­pen­di­tures, the Greek gov­ern­ment has not pro­vided the safety net its cit­i­zens once could rely on. A na­tional pro­gram to move some of the dis­placed back into their homes via a stipend of a few hun­dred eu­ros monthly has fal­tered, and many of those se­lected last year say they have not re­ceived the money.

In­stead, mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties and com­mu­nity groups have stepped in, cre­at­ing soup kitchens and shel­ters.

Lam­bros Mous­takis, a large man with a jovial man­ner, lives in one such shel­ter, the Ho­tel Io­nis, where Samolis and Gadov also re­side.

A re­cep­tion­ist for more than 30 years, Mous­takis found him­self out of a job in 2010 when the ho­tel chain he worked for closed many of its prop­er­ties. His sav­ings dwin­dled, and evic­tion fol­lowed. He spent his first night on the street sleep­ing in a cen­tral Athens square next to his suit­cases.

“I just prayed to God, be­cause I didn’t know what else to do,” he said. “I didn’t know what it was not to work. I didn’t know what it meant not to have a place to go at the end of the day.” He soon found a space at a home­less shel­ter, one of the coun­try’s first.

For all the chal­lenges, many of those who find them­selves strug­gling show lit­tle self-pity. Some even en­gage in a form of gal­lows hu­mor. Shel­ters have started theater groups; the terror of the early days has set­tled into a kind of bear­able re­al­ity.

“You have to spend your time think­ing about the good side, be­cause the bad side is too ter­ri­ble,” Gadov said.

Mous­takis said it can be dif­fi­cult to keep his spir­its up.

”What makes me re­ally de­pressed is when I see all these peo­ple come in,” he said. “Ev­ery day, ev­ery week, ev­ery month. ... It never seems to stop.”

Asked what keeps him go­ing, Mous­takis paused. “The idea that one day, I’ll be back, with a key, in my own apart­ment. That’s the dream,” he said.

‘What we’re see­ing is the wip­ing out of a lower-mid­dle class, or a for­mer lower-mid­dle class.’

— Ro­man Gerodi­mos,

Ex­pert on mod­ern Greek so­ci­ety at Bournemouth Univer­sity, Eng­land

Simela Pantzartzi Euro­pean Pressphoto Agency

A HOME­LESS MAN reads a news­pa­per in Athens. Some peg the num­ber of new home­less as high as 20,000. Greece’s un­em­ploy­ment rate is 26%, the EU’s high­est.

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