Marko Djurica / Reuters

As Greece nears bankruptcy, residents self-organize food aid

With sky-high unemployment amid financial austerity, Greeks are helping one another on the streets

ATHENS — Between the throngs of ice cream-licking tourists and Greek teenagers strolling along central Athens’ crowded pedestrian Ermou Avenue, Constantinos Polychronopoulos stirs a vat of soup on a portable gas stove with a wooden spoon the size of a kayak paddle.

For the past few years, Polychronopoulos and other members of Oallos Anthropos —a mobile soup kitchen formed by unemployed Greeks — have come here every Friday afternoon to distribute hot meals beneath a banner that reads: “Free food for all.”

OA is one of many informal, citizen-led “solidarity groups” now offering up food, clothing and community as part of a burgeoning DIY aid movement in Greece. As the Greek crisis has lingered, along with distrust of NGOs fueled by corruption scandals, these organizations — often led by would-be welfare recipients — are helping to mend a social safety net attenuated by years of austerity.

The official statistics paint a grim portrait of social stability in Greece. According to a 2014 report by the OECD, the share of people in Greece who say they are unable to afford food doubled to 18 percent between 2007 and 2013. The country faces a staggering unemployment rate: 26 percent of Greeks overall and fully half of those under 25 are without jobs. And the latest statistics show that over six million people are either living in poverty or at risk of slipping beneath the poverty threshold.

Child hunger in Greece has also reached alarming levels. The Prolepsis Institute, a medical research NGO that also runs a school meal program, estimates that about 35 percent of the country’s students are in need of a meal. Dr. Athena Linos, president of Prolepsis, said that the organization had to close applications for its meal program after receiving requests from schools representing 150,000 students, far more than its budget could serve.

Among the regular visitors to this corner of Ermou Avenue is 34-year-old Stella Konidari, a former security guard, now unemployed for over five years. “Sometimes when I’m sleeping, I feel like I’m having a nightmare. But then I wake up, and everything is the same,” Konidari said as she tucked an extra piece of bread into her purse.

She lives alone in an apartment she inherited after the death of her mother, and supplements the 60 euros ($67) she receives every month from a family member with regular meals from Oallos Anthropos (OA). Despite being jobless for so long, she says she has never received any government benefits. The street-side meals provided by OA at Ermou and other neighborhoods around the city are the only form of assistance that she receives outside of her family.

Statistics on solidarity groups are spotty, but according to Eleni-Revekka Staiou, a PhD candidate at the University of Athens who has been studying these groups since 2010, there are about 500 initiatives scattered across the country, about one-third of which are focused on food aid. Other groups — also loosely organized and citizen-led — offer free medical services or medicine, or have developed a “time-bank” or other alternative currency system to cope with individual financial losses.

These groups seem to have sprung out of necessity, as much as frustration with available options. “In many cases, the people who started these initiatives had the same problems themselves,” Staiou wrote in an email. 

The neo-poor

Food aid coordination agencies are also reporting an uptick in demand. “Since 2011, I can tell you with a lot of confidence that across the board, all over Greece, there has been at least a tenfold increase [in] people that are seeking food,” said Alexander Theodoridis, co-founder of Boroume. The Athens-based organization connects aid distributors, such as soup kitchens and NGOs, with donations from various sources, including large food manufacturers, individual households and small restaurants or bakeries.

At the same time that demand for aid has been increasing, public resources have been slashed as successive governments pursue austerity targets in exchange for bailout funds. From 2008 to 2013, Greece’s social spending dropped 18 percent, compared to an 11 percent average increase across the European Union over the same period.

The compounded impacts of the crisis have been felt most acutely by already vulnerable populations, but have also introduced many in the middle class to new anxieties. A phrase has been coined to describe those once financially secure who are now living at or near poverty — “neo-poor.”

“The homeless in the streets have not increased dramatically, but there is a big increase in people living in poverty,” said Eleni Katsouli, President of Athens’ Reception and Solidarity Center (KYADA), the city’s social services arm. She says the agency receives about 25 new applications for aid every day, having distributed food, clothing or medicine to some 20,000 Athenians since 2012.

Rising solidarity

Oallos Anthropos’ headquarters of sorts is a rented apartment in a quiet neighborhood of Kolonaki that also serves as an open space for anyone in need of coffee or a shower. Here, the lines between the group’s beneficiaries and organizers are blurred.

Maria Alesta, a 33-year-old unemployed single mother who helps serve food on the streets of Athens with OA every day, cycled between chatting with other visitors and scanning for job advertisements on a desktop computer. She lost her job as a forensic pathologist last year, so she and her 13-year-old son had to move in with her mother. Her only income is a state single-mother stipend of 86 euros ($96) every two months.

Others, like Pangiotis, who comes to the apartment for food about twice a week, also bemoaned the state’s ability to help its citizens. An unemployed marine engineer, he did not want to give his last name because his family does not know he is homeless. He has been living on the streets of the nearby port city of Piraeus for the last year. He said he pursued state benefits but was deterred by bureaucracy and “the madness of the papers.”

“It’s useless to try to get government aid,” he added.

As with other solidarity groups, Polychronopoulos, the 50-year-old former marketing professional behind OA, has eschewed government and NGO assistance. He started cooking for the public in 2011 with food donated from a farmer’s market, after seeing two Greek children fight over scraps in a dumpster. Today, he says his group serves 250 people a day and he manages to cover the 2500 euros ($2,812) worth of monthly expenses through donations.

But the group says donations are increasingly hard to come by. Thalia Dimitriou, who has worked with OA and other solidarity groups for five years, blames rising taxes that chip away further at discretionary income. “It’s harder to find clothes, it’s harder to find food,” she said.

Theodoridis of Boroume also mentioned an increase in those interested in helping OA and similar groups. “It’s like civil society 2.0,” he said. “We’ve absolutely seen more people trying to get involved.” The organization had one of its most successful quarters at the start of this year, distributing about 500,000 meals.

For Dimitriou, the new wave of solidarity is based on empathy and growing insecurity. “When you’re walking along the road and you see someone in the street with their hand out, you turn your body and mind away from them,” she said. “At first, in Greece, we didn’t see them. Now, we see them because we are afraid that we will be there next.”

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