Yannis Behrakis (Greece)

Homeless in Greece 

Marialena’s tears rained down her face onto the dirty mattress where she and her boyfriend Dimitrios have been sleeping day in and day out for over a year under a bridge in one of Athens’ most run-down neighbourhoods.

Marialena, 41, is a homeless AIDS patient and a former drug addict on a Methadone rehab program.

Athens is full of sad stories like hers – of once ordinary people with a job and family who found themselves on the fringes of society after the country’s economic crisis began in 2009. Up until a few years ago, homelessness was unusual in this country of close family ties, but nowadays stories like Marialena’s are increasingly common.

As Dimitrios tries to clean – without any gloves - the bleeding gashes on her arm, a rat makes its way behind their mattress.

Dimitrios, 50 – who is divorced with a 21-year-old daughter and a 20 year-old son - became homeless three years ago when he lost his job as a dancer in a Greek folk dance troupe. 

 “I want to die, this is not life - it’s a nightmare, I’m going to get sick and die” Marialena cried out as her greenish blue eyes filled with tears.

Michalis, a 36-old man from the Greek island of Rhodes, sits on a plastic chair nearby, in the little area that they all call home.

Michalis was a receptionist at a hotel that went bankrupt in late 2011. He couldn’t find a job and after a few months became homeless.  Two months later, he was diagnosed with cancer in his thyroid and lymph nodes. Michalis usually lives on the steps of a Greek Orthodox Church but he spends time “under the bridge” with his other homeless friends.

One mattress down is Yiorgos, a 50 year-old man from Athens who was forced to shut his billiards club few years ago, spent time in prison for not paying his social security debts and now takes medication for depression. Next to him is Vassilios, 35, who has been homeless for over 7 years and works on odd jobs for small tips. He has stayed in mental institutions several times.

In a square nearby is Stephanos, 42, a soft-spoken man who worked for over 10 years in a well-known men’s clothes shop in central Athens. The shop closed on October 12, 2012 and a few months later when Stephanos could not pay his rent, he found shelter along with other homeless and drug addicts in a square in central Athens.

Dimitrios is like a father figure for his girlfriend Marialena and the few others who live under the bridge. “I feel responsible for all those lost souls,” he says as he rearranges the plastic chairs under the bridge.

“I had many dreams,” says Marialena. “I wanted to become a dancer or a doctor - the only dream I have now is to survive the day and eventually find a home.”

The numbers paint a tragic picture of homelessness rising rapidly in Greece as it struggles through its worst post World War II crisis.

Since the debt crisis erupted in 2009, hundreds of thousands of Greeks have lost their jobs or businesses and the unemployment rate touched a record 27 percent in February this year, compared to just 9 percent in February 2009. According to the NGO Praxis, the number of homeless in Greece rose from 11,000 in 2009, to over 20,000 in 2013.

EU data show that Greece has the highest jobless rate across the 27-nation bloc.  The Greek statistics agency estimates that since the start of the crisis, 700 to 1,000 Greeks have been losing their jobs daily. Of an estimated 1.3 million unemployed Greeks, some 225,000 are receiving handouts from the state.

NGOs like Klimaka and Praxis as well as the Red Cross, the Athens municipality and the Church of Greece are all helping by offering food, clothing and shoes as well as washing facilities and shelter in some cases. But those are never enough to deal with the rising numbers - homeless people, some of them old and sick, are a common sight everywhere in Athens.

According to a study by Klimaka, six out of 10 homeless people lost their home in the past two years. Forty-seven percent of them have children.

In 2011, 3.4 million people in Greece were living at risk of poverty and social exclusion, a Eurostat report said. That translates to 31 percent of the population, up from 27.7 percent in 2010.

Over 15 percent of Greeks were unable to cover their basic needs in 2011, Eurostat said - or nearly double the EU average of 8.8 percent.

This group includes people who cannot afford the following: rent or paying off debt; heating; unexpected expenses; a meal of meat or fish every two days; a week-long holiday away from home; a car; a washing machine; a colour television and a telephone.

After writing this blog I found myself wondering…. what has happened to my country? What is wrong with this world? 

Yannis Behrakis, was born 1960 in Athens, Greece, where he studied photography at the Athens School of Arts and Technology and received his BA (Honours) in Arts from the Middlesex University.  He has been a photojournalist for Reuters since late 1987, and has covered a variety of events including the funeral of Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran, the changes in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, the civil conflicts in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo, the wars in Chechnya, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Afghanistan, Lebanon and the first and second Gulf wars. He has also covered the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for many years and earthquakes in Kashmir, Turkey, Greece and Iran, as well as civil unrest and major political events around the world.  More recently he covered the events in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. He has covered four Summer Olympics, the World Cup in the US and many international sports events.

Among several awards, he has been named seven times News Photographer of the Year by the Greek National Fuji Awards and three times European Photojournalist of the Year by Fuji in London 1999, Barcelona 2002 and Rome 2004. In 2000 he received the John Faber award from the Overseas Press Club of America in New York. In 2000 he received the most prestigious Greek journalistic prize, the Botsis Foundation Award.
Other awards were first prize in the General News Stories category, by the World Press Photo Foundation in 2000; in the 2002 Bayeux Awards for war correspondents, his pictures of the liberation of Kabul won the Prix de Public (the public's choice). He also won awards in the China International Press Photo Contest in 2004 and 2009. In 2011 he received an award of excellence in the General News Stories category in the Best of Photojournalism Competition from the NPPA (National Press Photographers Association). In 2012 he won second place for General News in the prestigious POYi (Pictures of the Year international)