ATHENS: On a bench beneath a fluttering Greek flag in front of an Orthodox church, two homeless men are philosophizing about the financial crisis that has devastated their country and helped push them onto the streets.
“What can I say about the situation?” asks 45-year-old Andreas, who was a builder before the construction work dried up and who has been sleeping rough in Athens for six months.
“Greece never dies,” he shrugs. “The Greeks, however, will die. That’s how it is. That’s the situation.”
“No home, no bathroom, no life,” adds Michalis in a mixture of English and Greek, smiling kindly.
The bearded 43-year-old leather worker, who has been homeless for three years, opens his rucksack to show his life’s possessions.
What little he has includes a book by 20th century humanist poet Giorgos Seferis, a Nobel Prize winner who wrote about alienation, death and Greek heritage, and his own thoughts scrawled in red ink on a crumpled piece of paper, titled “Loneliness.”
Five years of austerity in Greece has seen pensions and wages slashed, while unemployment has risen to 26 percent, with youth unemployment soaring to nearly 50 percent.
The number of Greeks at risk of poverty more than doubled between 2008 and 2013 to over 44 percent, according to the latest figures from the International Labor Organization.
The tough reforms eurozone creditors are demanding in return for a new bailout are now set to cause more pain, with higher taxes and further spending cuts.
‘Take each others’ hands’
While many have been able to rely on their families for support, Andreas and Michalis say they are on their own.
They share a marijuana joint in a small square on the bench they call home, between the outstretched arms of a Virgin Mary, surrounded by pigeons scavenging for food, and behind them a shuttered book store called “Modern Times.”
Churches, charities, businesses and individuals have sprung into action over the past five years to help the needy.
Beneath the Acropolis in Monistiraki Square a small group of volunteers—some of them homeless themselves—prepares a giant pot of spaghetti.
The ‘social kitchen’ has been cooking communal meals for the past four years, providing not just hot food but also companionship and a little hope.
“I believe that if we take each others’ hands there will be solidarity and we’re going to succeed,” says Roula, a hairdresser overseeing the preparation of today’s meal.
Dimitris Fourakis, 50, spent three years on the streets after losing his job in a tyre factory. But after linking up with the group he found somewhere to stay in an abandoned building, and is now hopeful for the future.
“I believe in God but I don’t expect him to help me,” he says. Asked if he believes in Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, however, the answer is yes.
‘Still free falling’
Tsipras on Wednesday pushed through parliament the controversial EU bailout deal that he himself says he does “not believe in”, but should stop the country crashing out of the euro.
But Yiannis Kondogiannakis, of the Praksis NGO, says the new deal could make the situation for the poor “even worse” and warns that the government needs a “specific plan” to tackle the problem.
“We have big gaps in basic government services,” says Kondoyiannakis, who runs a daycare center that offers people food, medical services, a shower and clothes-washing.
He has seen the number of people seeking help rise to 130 a day at his Athens center. And while the majority used to be migrants that had fled desperate poverty and war, now he says Greeks make up between 40 percent and 50 percent.
Outside a soup kitchen in central Athens run jointly by the Archdiocese and the city, Foteini Kyzouli opens her plastic bag to show what she has been given: two portions of peas with potatoes and some bread.
The 62-year-old used to hand out leaflets telling people where they could find help, but never thought she would need it herself.
“I was living the illusion that the crisis wouldn’t touch me,” she says. “But it’s only natural that what comes to your neighbour will come to you next.”
Back on the bench, Andreas and Michalis are warming to the political discussion. “God now is money,” “it’s a fascist economy,” “the euro will crack,” they say.
But for now there are more prosaic things to worry about. It’s time for them to go to the soup kitchen.
“We haven’t seen the fallout from the crisis yet,” says Andreas. “We are still free falling. Where will it end?”