July 5, 2014 6:47 pm

Donors step in to assist the victims of Greek austerity

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Homeless people hold placards reading "homeless" and "we don't have any slogans, we have requests" during a protest march to the Greek parliament on April 12, 2013©Getty

Hard times: protesters demand help for the homeless

Christina, an Athenian in her mid-40s, has been living on the streets of the Greek capital since losing her job and her home more than two years ago.

“I feel my situation gets more desperate every week,” says the former supermarket employee, interviewed at a day-care centre in Metaxourgeion, a gritty central neighbourhood. The centre is run by Praksis, a Greek non-governmental organisation working with the country’s “new poor”.

Christina spends two or three days a week job-hunting all over the city. Like other Greeks left destitute during the country’s deepest recession on record, she eats a daily meal at a soup kitchen run by the Athens municipality, and uses the day-care centre to take a shower and wash clothes.

The Praksis centre is backed by the Stavros Niarchos foundation (named after the late Greek shipping tycoon) as part of a three-year, €100m programme that funds Greek NGOs attempting to alleviate high levels of poverty and social exclusion – now believed to affect about one-third of the population.

Private donors have helped plug a yawning welfare gap caused by a 40 per cent cut in social spending as Greece implemented an austerity programme agreed with international lenders. The Niarchos foundation came up with the largest single donation, followed by a €25m grant from the international financier George Soros’s own foundation.

Greek companies have made smaller cash donations and contributed in kind, supporting social groceries and providing computers and other equipment to NGOs. The Greek shipowners’ union, representing hundreds of Athens-based owners, has faced criticism for delaying a planned €25m donation because of a tax dispute with the government.

Epaminondas Farmakis, founder of Elpis, an Athens-based consultancy for philanthropists and donors, says: “It’s unfortunate that wealthy groups such as shipowners and industrialists don’t seem interested enough in alleviating social pain through collective action. These very high poverty rates will have an impact on the environment and on society, eventually affecting everyone’s quality of life.”

Some hope that as Greece’s economy recovers, the government will be able to claw back more funds for welfare spending. A €230m income-support package is being prepared for Greeks with monthly incomes of €400 or less who live in rented accommodation.

A new round of EU structural funding is expected to provide €1.3bn of funding for social programmes including retraining for the long-term unemployed and cash for poverty alleviation projects that would be managed by NGOs.

Yet private donors will still be vital to protecting vulnerable groups, Mr Farmakis says. “Past experience shows that disbursement of funds from EU programmes can be delayed for three to five years after they’re approved.”

Niarchos, a global donor which also supports the arts, has set new benchmarks for NGO operations in Greece, carrying out rigorous due diligence before awarding grants and requiring strict accounting practices.

Even in the provinces, families’ resources are close to being exhausted

John Zervakis, the foundation’s chief operating officer in Athens, says: “With a few exceptions, Greek NGOs are not in a position to absorb large amounts of funding. There’s a need for capacity building and for education in philanthropy.”

Praksis, one of Greece’s largest NGOs with 150 paid staff, including a full-time fundraiser, and an annual budget of more than €10m, has been a big beneficiary of the Niarchos programme.

In addition to the Athens day-care centre, Praksis operates a mobile medical clinic in the capital, runs a programme to enable impoverished families to stay in their homes, and has opened a shelter in the port of Patras for young irregular migrants who arrive in Greece without adult relatives.

“The needs are large and varied, because so much of Greece’s middle class has been wiped out by the crisis,” says Tzannetos Antypas, chairman of Praksis.

Lazaros Papageorgiou, founder and director of Artos-Drassi (Bread-Action), which supplies staple foods and serves meals to impoverished families in the decaying industrial suburbs of western Athens, says donations in cash and kind have fallen by 50 per cent over the past year even as more people seek help.

“In spite of better economic figures, we see increasing demand both for basic foodstuffs and for meals,” he says.

Last year, Artos-Drassi extended its activities to two northern regions of Greece, where strong family support networks and widespread ownership of smallholdings to grow food until now eased problems caused by a jobless rate of more than 45 per cent.

“Severe poverty is no longer confined to Athens and other big cities,” Mr Papageorgiou says. “It’s happened slowly, but even in the provinces, families’ resources are close to being exhausted.”

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