published at the Guardian
For Georgios Karvouniaris, his sister Barbara, and many thousands like them, whether Greece stays in the eurozone or not is unlikely to have any effect
Georgios Karvouniaris and his sister Barbara outside their donated caravan, without which they would be homeless. Photograph: Jon Henley
On a steep, gardenia-scented street in the north-eastern Athens suburb of Gerakas, in one corner of a patch of bare ground, stands a small caravan.
Plastic mesh fencing – orange, of the kind builders use – encloses a neat garden in which peppers, courgettes, lettuces and beans grow in well-tended raised beds. Flowers, too.
The caravan is old, but spotless. It is home to Georgios Karvouniaris, 61, and his sister Barbara, 64, two Greeks for whom all the Brussels wrangling over VAT rates, corporation tax and pension reforms has meant nothing – because they have nothing, no income of any kind.
Next Sunday’s referendum – which, if the country stays solvent that long, will either send Greece back to the negotiating table with its creditors or precipitate its exit from the eurozone – is unlikely to affect them much either.
“I do not see how any of it will change our lives. I have no hope, anyway,” said Georgios, sitting in a scavenged plastic garden chair beneath a parasol liberated from a skip.
After seven years of a crisis that has left 26% of Greece’s workforce unemployed, 30% of its people below the poverty line, 17% unable to meet their daily food needs and 3.1 million without health insurance, it is hard to see how anything decided in Brussels or in Athens in the coming week will do much to change the lives of a large number of Greeks any time soon.
“Those that were already on the margins have been pushed right to the very, very edge, and those who were in the middle have been pushed to the margins,” said Ioanna Pertsinidou of Praksis, a charity that runs day centres for vulnerable people and offers legal and employment advice.
“So many people – ordinary, low-to-middle income people with jobs and homes and their lives on track – have seen their lives go down the drain so fast,” Pertsinidou said. “People who never dreamed that one day they would not be able to pay their electricity bill, or feed their children properly.”
As it has scrabbled for every last cent to satisfy its creditors and ward off bankruptcy, Greece’s government has taken cash wherever it could – local authorities, healthcare, pensions, social services have all been tapped. In a country of 11 million people, public spending is now €65bn (£45.6bn) less than it was in 2010. “There is no safety net left,” said Pertsinidou.
No one need tell that to the Karvouniaris family. Georgios is a stern man, still strong, smartly shaven and dressed in a clean green polo short and jeans. His sister, remarkably jovial, wears black for their younger brother Vangelis, who died of nobody will say exactly what two years ago next month, aged 52. He spent a brief week in hospital before his death, for which his siblings recently received a €2,000 bill – which they managed to get written off.
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Until March 2013, the three lived in an apartment a mile or so away that they had shared since 1980. None of them had ever married. It worked well. Georgios, a welder and mechanic before becoming a bank security guard, and Vangelis, a salesman, shoe repairer and, latterly, gardener, were the breadwinners. Barbara cooked, cleaned and looked after her brothers.
Quite early in Greece’s crisis, Vangelis lost his job. Then in February 2011, Georgios lost his at the Agrotiki bank, where he had worked for 12 years. After leaving school at 12 and working ever since, Georgios got €465 unemployment benefit for eight months, then €200 for a year, then nothing.
The rent on the apartment was €250. “We spent all we had,” he said. “Our savings. We sold Barbara’s jewellery, for half its worth. We tried to sell this patch of land but no one would buy it. For the first time in 30 years, we didn’t pay our rent. By the end we couldn’t even afford food.”
If the Karvouniarises are not now sleeping rough, it is because a neighbour saw them sitting in tears outside their apartment building, formally threatened with eviction and all packed up but with nowhere to go. They had not eaten for three days.
It took time, but Despina Moragianis – a relative of that neighbour – and her friends, Ann Papastavrou and Niki Festas, women in their 60s, rallied their women’s group in Halandri.
Twenty-odd people, none wealthy, pitched in to buy the 15-year-old caravan, which was towed to the Kourvaniaris family’s small plot, once intended as Barbara’s dowry.
Georgios Karvouniaris and his sister Barbara outside their caravan Facebook Twitter Pinterest
Georgios Karvouniaris and his sister Barbara outside their caravan. Jon Henley Photograph: Jon Henley
For 13 months there was no water, but a campaign by the women persuaded the Gerakas town hall to fit a standpipe in May last year. Later, the group raised €1,000 to have it plumbed into the caravan and a septic tank dug, so the toilet works. The next target is a solar panel for electricity.
Every month the group holds a raffle, the proceeds of which buy fresh fruit and vegetables – apples, oranges, beans, potatoes – which Moragianis and her friends bring up to the caravan once a week. Fresh meat is once a week. Non-perishables – spaghetti, rice, flour, condensed milk, tomato sauce – come from the food bank.
And so the Karvouniaris siblings survive. Georgios digs, recycles what he can find on the streets, takes long walks and dreams of fresh milk. No electricity means no fridge. Barbara cooks – there is a gas stove – cleans, washes clothes and tends her garden.
The couple have no money – a friendly town hall official paid their latest €18 water bill out of his own pocket – and no hope of any until Georgios qualifies for his pension at 67. “I’d hoped it might be 65, in four years’ time, but they’ve just recently decided to raise the age limit,” he said.
He is not sure how much he will get even then. Pensions have been a major stumbling block in Greece’s aid-for-reforms talks with its creditors, who want further savings from a system whose benefits have already been cut by 45%, leaving nearly half of Greece’s pensioners below the monthly poverty threshold of €665.
It is not just pensioners in penury. Under a limited relief programme promised by the Syriza party during its election victory in January, more than 300,000 of the poorest Greek households applied last month for food aid, a small rent allowance and to have their electricity reconnected for free.
So far the government has found the money to pay a small housing benefit to precisely 1,073 people, the social solidarity minister, Theano Fotiou, admitted. The €70 a month grocery voucher Georgios and Barbara were promised under the scheme – “We have no house and no power, so there was nothing else we qualified for,” said Georgios – has yet to materialise.
Barbara’s face briefly clouds. How does she feel about the way they have been treated? “Disgusted,” she said, quietly. “Just … disgusted.” She smiles again. “But we’ve been lucky. There are people who have nowhere to sleep at all.”
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According to a University of Crete study earlier this year, there are now 17,700 people without proper and secure housing in Athens alone. Some sleep rough or in cars, others camp with friends or relatives, or live in squats and hostels.
A majority are in their own homes, threatened with imminent eviction because they are among the estimated 320,000 Greek families who have fallen behind with a mortgage or other payment to their bank.
Two are in a small donated caravan, living on food donated by a group of Greek women. Georgios is grateful, but he also gets angry sometimes. “I have worked all my life. I’ve paid my taxes all my life,” he said.
“I’m 61 years old and if it wasn’t for the generosity of people who three years ago we had never met, we would be sleeping on a bench. You do what you can. But it doesn’t seem right.”