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Social work in Greece: ‘I haven’t been paid for nine months’

Source: The Guardian

09 Apr 2014, Athens, Attica, Greece --- Athens, Greece. 9th April 2014 -- Protesters anti-government slogans. -- Greek unions launched an anti-austerity general strike that halted train and island ferry services while disrupting state hospitals and other public services. Thousands of protesters marched through central Athens in the first of two planned demos. --- Image by © Konstantinos Tsakalidis/Demotix/Corbis

09 Apr 2014, Athens, Attica, Greece — Athens, Greece. 9th April 2014 — Protesters anti-government slogans. — Greek unions launched an anti-austerity general strike that halted train and island ferry services while disrupting state hospitals and other public services. Thousands of protesters marched through central Athens in the first of two planned demos. — Image by © Konstantinos Tsakalidis/Demotix/Corbis

 

Yiannis greeted me at the entrance of the drop-in centre for homeless people in Athens, Greece. You could sense that there was a time when he would have been considered a good-looking man, but now his hair hung in un-kept strands and his clothes, while clean, were ill-fitting and crumpled. He spoke English reluctantly but thoughtfully, pausing while he searched for the right word.

Yiannis acted as my guide, showing me around the centre. “Anyone can come here. All you need is a need. No papers – it’s okay, no ID,” he explained. “We have only one rule in this building.” He raised his thumb and two fingers to his nose. “It must smell like a home.”

 

We walked from one room to the next, meeting other members of the community and applying the sniff test as he told me his story. A lifetime ago he was a construction worker in Athens, but in 2009 everything stopped. “One minute you went to work, and then … nothing.”

 

Before the financial crisis, which saw unemployment rise to 28%, Yiannis dreamed of sending his two daughters to university. They lived in an apartment that he had refurbished. His wife worked part-time in a café and together they nearly earned €900 (£652) a month, enough to live on.

 

The first sign of trouble was having the electricity cut off when they could not pay the €200 the company wanted. Later, when they were evicted from their apartment, they moved to the home of his wife’s parents in another province. His family of four slept in the lounge, but not being able to provide for them was too much. “I thought everyday I will have a heart attack, no sleep, I wasn’t so nice to be around,” he said.

 

Yiannis left his family and went back to the capital in search of work. He slept next to a bookshop because there was lighting that made him feel safe, and looked through rubbish bins for food. “An old friend walked past and looked right at me but didn’t recognise [me],” he said. “Thank God. I would rather be dead.”

 

After saying that he would be delighted to show me around the centre any time, Yiannis introduced me to one of the social workers, Christina, a woman in her late 30s, with perhaps 15 years of post-graduation practice behind her. She told me that she had worked in both the public and NGO sectors and liked this agency. “I can just be a social worker,” she said. “I don’t have to justify social work to my managers because they understand it.”

 

I asked for an example of what that meant. “This is a community of people, not a day centre for the homeless,”she replied. “Everybody’s dignity and humanity is safe in here.”

 

The centre runs entirely on donations from those less aversely affected by the financial crash. There is a community pharmacy, where they collect medications that people don’t need anymore, and a small examination room staffed by a volunteer doctor.

 

Greeks and migrants that have no papers or fixed address cannot access healthcare. Since government austerity began, the poorest people in Greece have lost 86% of their income, causing widespread social insecurity. There has been a sharp rise in men carrying out suicide, often because there is no work and they cannot provide for their families. Social spending has been dramatically reduced in both the private and public sectors.

 

As a result, grassroots organisations made up of social workers, neighbourhood committees, students and social movements have created organic networks of social solidarity that support people who do not have access to the shrinking welfare services. In addition to projects like the centre, social workers and community members voice their concerns by peaceful protest and have created an environment of solidarity and hope for the future.

As I was leaving the centre, I asked Christina if her pay had been cut. Her expression changed. “I haven’t been paid for nine months,” she said. I tried to reconcile how she had conducted herself with such professionalism and commitment in an agency that had not paid her wages. I asked how she had survived. “My husband and two children, we are all staying with relatives and our food comes from the Red Cross,” she said.

 

I asked what it was like working in a centre for the homeless without a permanent home herself. “It’s not always easy. I have to keep my family’s needs out of here so that I can stay focused on my social work role,” she said.

 

The most worrying thing is that Yannis and Christina’s experiences are normal. Christina has helped Yannis to re-establish contact with his family and they are again living together in an over-crowded house without electricity. He is now helping many others who have found themselves homeless and without food. Many middle class professionals like Christina have tumbled into poverty and insecurity. Their bonds and informal networks have kept them alive but these are wearing thinner, and after six years of austerity everyone is wondering how much longer they can continue.