European Observatory on Homelessness:  Policy Update 2005    Greece      By Dr Aristides Sapounakis        December 2005 

Research Institute "Kivotos", Vas.Sofias & Ang.Pyrri 9, Athens 11527, Greece tel: + 30 210 77 03 357, 210 77 59 531, fax: + 30 210 77 10 816;; e-mail: arsapkiv@hol.gr

TABLE OF CONTENTS 1. INTRODUCTION 3

2. GOVERNANCE AND INSTITUTIONAL POLICIES 2.1. Introduction 2.2. Government Reform 2.3. Legislation 2.4. New actors

5 5 6 7 8

3. ACCESS TO HOUSING 3.1. Introduction 3.2. Social welfare support and housing benefit 3.3. Provision of support / right to housing or services 3.4. Provision of affordable rented housing

10 10 10 11 12

4. PREVENTING EXCLUSION 4.1. Introduction 4.2. Homeless strategies 4.3. Homeless services 4.4. Indebtedness and eviction

13 13 13 14 15

5.

POLICIES TARGETING THE MOST VULNERABLE 5.1. Introduction 5.2. Domestic abuse 5.3. Immigrants 5.4. Areas marked by exclusion

17 17 17 18 18

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1

INTRODUCTION

As has been noted in earlier reports, homelessness in Greece has been conceived as a distinct social phenomenon only during the last decade. As the issue gradually attracted attention and publicity in the mid 1990’s, it became acknowledged as a social fact by both public opinion and policy makers. Still, most attempts to address it, either through prevention or through service provision, remain as yet inefficient and fragmentary.

The reason for the fragmentation of policies for the homeless lies in the absence of an Institute, NGO, a central or local government agency, or even a distinct strategy that will assess the dimensions of homelessness in Greece and deal with the needs of homeless people, as well as people at risk of losing their home, in a unified manner. Although the Greek Constitution states that the provision of accommodation constitutes a special task for the State and, in addition to this, a legal framework for the provision of social housing to people in need does exist, there is no statutory obligation of central or local government authorities to provide accommodation and support to individuals or social groups who are homeless.

Housing history in Greece reveals that housing support has traditionally been a family matter, while state intervention has always remained too modest to cope effectively with housing needs. Housing loans on favourable terms as well as a number of benefits are available only to social groups that meet specific criteria mainly connected to their employment record. These people are not necessarily the most disadvantaged.

Nevertheless, recent evidence reveals that housing costs grow higher without a corresponding increase in wages and pensions while, at the same time, family bonds have been loosening. Furthermore, specific social groups face accumulated problems which hinder their ability to obtain a secure home. As housing integration is an important component if not a prerequisite for wider social integration, a growing portion of the population tends to become socially excluded.

It must further be noted that, the conspicuous delay in the provision of housing support for certain social groups like immigrants, repatriates and members of the Roma communities, has  3  

been prolonged until late August 2005. As the negative effects of this delay have been reinforced by the scarcity of job opportunities, unemployment reaching almost 10%, the specific target groups are bound to face an escalating threat for social exclusion.

The aim of the present report is to assess developments in policies that relate to homelessness and access to housing in Greece during the last twelve months, i.e. from August 2004 to August 2005. For this reason, policies and measures that are directly or indirectly relevant to the issue of access to housing for vulnerable groups are recorded.

Similarly, the review covers supplementary policies and measures that relate to the needs of the specific target groups and have been put in effect in the particular period. It must be noted, that the presentation of the entire legal and policy framework that caters for the needs of the homeless in Greece lies beyond the scope of the present overview. Thus reference to the broader context in which recent measures and policies take place will be made according to the restrictions of the present study.

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2
2.1.

GOVERNANCE AND INSTITUTIONAL POLICIES

Introduction

During the last couple of years, social policy in Greece has been largely dependent on the implications related to the March 2004 general election and its anticipated outcome. This event has had a complex impact on the elaboration and implementation of social policy in Greece as, during the six-month period preceding the elections, the socialist government of PASOK has aimed to ameliorate the existing legal framework in favour of the least privileged social groups. Despite the obvious criticism concerning the hidden objectives of this campaign, a number of policies as well as long-awaited supportive measures for specific target groups, such as pensioners and the unemployed had been issued almost 15 months ago.

Despite these efforts however, the recent research of the Social Policy Institute of the National Center of Social Research has revealed that one out of five Greeks still lives below the threshold of poverty while 50% of the population has an income that is less than the income of the richest 10%. In the beginning of the year 2005, 523,843 people were without a job (11.2%) and around 80,000 people, being between 5 and 64 years old, are estimated to be substance abusers. Similarly, as many as 4500 minors have experienced domestic violence and are facing the alternatives of moving to an institution or sleeping rough.

The elderly, the unemployed, pensioners as well as households the leader of which has a low educational standard are considered as being the vulnerable. 40% of households below the threshold of poverty declare themselves incapable of paying their electricity and heating bills, while a considerable portion of the total number of households in Greece (2.17%) are threatened by bankruptcy in case of a member’s serious illness.

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2.2.

Government Reform

The shift in administration that followed the elections of March 2004 has led to a subsequent change of policy-making in the country. Novel legal instruments regulating employment and social security policies as well as the legalisation of immigrants have been met with severe criticism by both social partners and public opinion. On the other hand, the ‘New Democracy’ administration approaches the issue of homelessness in a manner, similar to their socialist predecessors. The relatively high percentage of home ownership in Greece, which has risen from 78% to 83% between 1994 and 2004 due to lower interest rates, is still considered as an indicator of low levels of homelessness despite the ageing housing stock. Similarly, the strong correlation of poverty and inadequate housing conditions is not taken into account. Thus the evident fact that a multitude of people face the risk of becoming homeless due to the aggravation of any of the above factors tends to be by-passed. In addition to the above, the new government has been reinforcing the already existing tendency to promote profit-oriented redevelopment initiatives of usually deteriorating urban areas. Such intervention strategies are often met by criticism as they do not incorporate social criteria bearing practically no provision for existing residents, especially tenants who will inevitably have to face exclusion, as in the case of Kountouriotika in central Athens. It must be noted that the provisions sponsored by the Workers’ Housing Organisation (OEK) for housing benefit and support are addressed to people who have a more or less consistent working record. Thus these mechanisms may not readily be utilized by the most vulnerable groups such as the long-term unemployed, young people, women etc, who thus fail to be serviced by the safety net provided. Finally, despite the opposition expressed in the Greek Parliament, the minimum guaranteed income for all has not been adopted as yet. People in need still have to rely on a variable system of pensions and allowances which generally tend to be too low to be satisfactory.

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2.3.

Legislation

Almost a year after being in office, the ‘New Democracy’ administration presented the National Action Plan for Social Inclusion 2005-2006. Its aims develop along four axes, namely: (a) the government’s development strategy, (b) the coordination of social policy at national level, (c) the strengthening of the family as an institution and (d) the support of people without family networks and of other vulnerable groups.

In as much as the need to coordinate social policy at national level, the National Action Plan for Social Inclusion 2005-2006 stresses the need to assess, to monitor and to evaluate social protection policies across the country. This task is assigned to the newly established National Council for Social Protection, with the participation of representatives of central government, the social partners involved, as well as members of the voluntary sector. The National Council for Social Protection, which will be supported by a Social Protection Secretariat, is responsible for the edition of an annual report on the social situation in the country.

The most important policies and measures involved in the third group of the NAP’s objectives for family support aim to provide education and training for family members, to secure and improve family income and employment for women, and to combat child poverty. Measures include actions which involve the Workers’ Housing Organisation (OEK) who will be subsidised to support multi-membered families through the provision of housing loans free of interest as well as an increased family benefit through the Organisation of Employment (OAED). Similar supporting mechanisms for families are also provided by the new legislation on taxation.

The fourth group of policies and measures involve people who lack family support and other vulnerable groups who face social exclusion either because of long-term unemployment, or race, ethnicity, institutionalisation, substance abuse etc. Their needs for social inclusion will be supported by the reinforcement of social services as well as specific provision of the new legislative framework, such as the newly prepared law on immigrants which, apart from the legalisation of all foreign labour and the unification of work and residence permits, will promote an integrated action programme for foreign nationals in the country.

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Although the National Action Plan for Social Inclusion 2005-2006 admittedly constitutes a positive instrument to combat social exclusion, it has been criticized by several bodies and interest groups in the country, as for example the Greek branch of the European Anti-Poverty Network, the Greek Network for the Right to Housing as well as the Economic and Social Committee. The basic points of criticism firstly concern aspects of the philosophy of its approach, namely the continuing tendency to disregard the need to assess the dimensions of poverty and social exclusion in the country employing basic indicators, as well as to establish a genuine and consistent dialogue among the various bodies involved. Furthermore, the Action Plan does not consider elements of income distribution policies including the minimum guaranteed income for all, while it also remains inert to the pressing need to develop an efficient national welfare system of services for the poor.

Following the Network’s intervention, the National Action Plan has incorporated a paragraph concerning homeless people in Greece. More specifically, the amendment refers to a pilot program which will provide temporary accommodation and psychosocial support for homeless people in Athens and Thessaloniki. It is interesting to note that it is practically the first occasion that the term ‘homelessness’ appears in official documents in Greece.

In addition to the National Action Plan for Social Inclusion, several policies which are socially minded are included in other pieces of legislation such as the Law prepared for imposing VAT on newly constructed property. Even though the specific legal document is still in its preparatory form, it has been agreed that no taxation will be added on the acquisition of a residence that will serve as the household’s primary dwelling.

On the other hand, novel legislation on employment as well as retirement have incorporated measures that appear to present obstacles in securing a steady income for a sizeable percentage of households. For example, under the new employment legislation, working after hours may now be underpaid, while dismissals from employment are facilitated. Similarly, under the law on social security an additional number of working years is required before retirement.

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2.4.

New Actors

It has become evident that the effectiveness of campaigns on sensitive issues such as prevention of homelessness and employment re-settlement has to be supported by a network of co-ordinating partners. Still, this notion of co-ordination of action has rarely gained grounds in the approach of governmental policy-makers to social issues. Thus, it has been relieving to observe a typical statutory body, the Greek Manpower Employment Organisation (OAED), asking the co-operation of local and regional government enterprises, as well as non-governmental organisations, in the implementation of subsidised employment programmes.

Tracing the role of the voluntary sector at another level, it is further interesting to note the recent emergence of structures which are considered novel in relation to the traditional organisation of the Greek society. The novel paradigm concerns the manner in which the voluntary sector is currently involved in the organisation of services of transitional accommodation for psychiatric patients by participating in structures termed as ‘Social Cooperatives of Limited Responsibility’. These new structures aim to develop the users’ vocational capacity on specific skills based on the close cooperation of public and voluntary agencies.

These structures are established according to article 12 of Law 2716/99 which provides the ground for their operation based on the need to support resettlement of mental patients in the labour market. The necessary procedures for the establishment of these cooperatives are currently under way. As it is almost the first time ever in Greece, that inter-agency cooperation is supported by law, it is hoped that the usual bureaucratic obstacles will be overtaken in view of the need to cooperate for a well defined cause.

In addition to the above, it is also interesting to note the procedure of certification of voluntary sector organisations and other NGO’s by the Ministry of Health and Social Solidarity. Once certified, NGO’s are expected to play a better role in supporting the country’s social networks.

Lastly, it is important to note that for the first time in Greece, a network of organizations dealing with the homeless was established in April 2004. This Network for the Right to  9  

Housing encompasses the most insightful bodies, which decided to get together under the shared understanding that the continuous apathy of central government policy-makers on social issues and especially homelessness may only be contested by a network rather than individual NGO’s. Its initial declaration is very much in congruence with FEANTSA’s views and has been signed unanimously by network members, which vary so much in character and orientation as Arsis, the Red Cross and Athens Municipality. Since then, the Network has been active both in setting the needed basis for research on the issue of homelessness in Greece as well as communicating its viewpoint to governmental policy makers.

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3.1.

ACCESS TO HOUSING
Introduction

During the last twelve months it has become evident that housing costs are rising without a correspondent rise in the average household’s income. The boost of housing loans through the commercial banking sector during the last 8-9 years, which has led to a 25.8% increase in contracts for the first three months of 2005 compared to 2004, has loaded a growing number of households with the additional burden of repayment. As a response to this need, most banks now offer new favourable loans to customers who wish to repay their initial mortgage. The danger involved in this is that if the borrower still has difficulty in repaying the new loan, he ends up being overburdened and finally bankrupt. It must also be noted that in December 2004, the Ministry of Finance asked commercial banks to double-check the pricing of loans (‘panotokia’) in order to ensure that borrowers are not charged by excessive interest rates.

3.2.

Social welfare support and housing benefit

It has been reported that the National Centre for Urgent Social Aid (EKAKB) services, which currently operate ten agencies in the major urban centres of Athens and Thessaloniki, will be enlarged. Furthermore, it must be noted that in order to keep up with the needs of the people who need social support and, indeed, to assess the dimensions of social need in the two cities with high incidence of social exclusion, EKAKB officials have decided to keep a well planned record of all important characteristics of users of their services. This register is expected to be particularly helpful to understand the needs of specific target groups.  10  

Furthermore, it must be noted that welfare and housing support under specific programs as de-institutionalisation has progressed through the establishment of additional shelters and the allocation of protected flats. Bodies of the voluntary sector, as for example ‘Klimaka’, take an active role in the implementation of the ‘Psychargos’ programme.

3.3.

Provision of support / Right to housing or services

The Workers’ Housing Organisation (OEK) who is the body responsible for social housing in Greece, has been providing its beneficiaries with housing support, either in the form of subsidised loans, rent subsidies or even in the form of ready made houses since the early 1950’s. In view of OEK’s record as a social housing provider and the rising housing needs in the periphery of Athens, it had been agreed that OEK will be responsible both for constructing the Olympic village of the 2004 Games as well as for distributing the nearly 17,000 dwellings to its beneficiaries after the completion of the Olympic Games.

In October 2004, OEK organised the distribution of the Olympic village housing stock to its beneficiaries successfully employing the usual lottery system. The procedure was marked by the consideration of social criteria among the participants, such as level of income and number of family members as well as equality of opportunity between foreign and native beneficiaries based on equality of social security contributions already duly paid. Almost 10% of those who benefited the lottery process have been households of immigrant workers. It must be noted that the Olympic housing distribution has been criticised mainly because OEK did not question the applicants about their legality of residence in the country.

On the other hand, a negative policy has been reported regarding members of the Roma communities and repatriates. Two years ago, the government announced the increased availability and simplified procedure of granting housing loans for specific vulnerable and low income groups such as immigrants of Greek origin from Pontos, in the Black Sea, and members of the Roma community. Nevertheless, the promised subsidised housing loan system for members of the Roma population has only sporadically been put in effect. Similarly, the distribution of favourable housing loans for newcomers of Greek origin from  11  

Pontos has been annoyingly delayed. Thus, although the main wave of this particular target group of nearly 180,000 migrated in Greece during the 90’s, their smooth insertion in the housing and labour markets has not been successful as yet.

The awkward incident in which agencies of the municipality of Patras and the local police evicted Roma community households from their residences is referred to in section 4.4.

3.4.

Provision of affordable rented housing

In Greece there is no provision for affordable rented housing organised by central or local government. The Workers’ Housing Organisation (OEK) provides housing support to its beneficiaries by subsidising the rent of those who apply. For this reason, households in need for affordable rented housing may only look for older or smaller flats in the private rental market. It must still be noted that OEK already declared that rent subsidy for the year 2005 will be improved both in terms of the amount of money given and in terms of the users’ threshold of income which will increase to allow more people to benefit from the specific measure.

Lastly, one should note that in special cases, as for example in the case of the deinstitutionalisation programme ‘Psychargos’, users temporarily live in protected flats.

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4
4.1.

PREVENTING EXCLUSION

Introduction

The phenomenon of homelessness in Greece has never been addressed by policy makers as a special issue. In the absence of a comprehensive strategy for the homeless, policies have always tended to refer to specific target groups, thus being essentially fragmented when seen as a whole. As a result, several categories of people such as young people between the age of 16 and 18, substance abusers and immigrants, failed to be serviced by the deficient safety net provided and are in danger on being socially excluded.

4.2.

Homeless Strategies

However, the last year has witnessed a few steps taken by statutory authorities to systematize the operation and performance of EKAKB, possibly aiming to allow it to become the body responsible for servicing the needy across the country. The systematic inventory for persons in need of support in Athens and Thessaloniki mentioned in section 3.2 is considered as a very positive action towards this end.

Furthermore, one must note the implementation of Measure 3.1 of the Operational Programme ‘Health and Welfare’ which covered almost 150 local authorities across the country with 96 beneficiary organisations. The agencies involved in the program have supported nearly 30,000 people in need during the last two years.

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4.3.

Homeless Services

Mainly because of the delay in the emergence of homelessness as a distinct phenomenon in Greece, homeless services in the country are not particularly developed. Under the fairly recent reorganisation of Services of the Ministry of Health and Social Solidarity, such services are now in the overall responsibility of the National Centre of Urgent Social Aid (EKAKB). Still, EKAKB has only 71 employees instead of 450 as planned, and the exceptionally unfavourable proportion of one social servant per 80,000 users.

Evidently, the security system must be strengthened and, it is apparent that local authorities must take over a number of responsibilities from centralised agencies. In addition to this, it is clear that the capacity and, indeed, the role of the voluntary sector must also be strengthened. Still, due to both subjective and objective reasons, the delegation of the responsibilities of service provision to local agencies and the voluntary sector rather than central government is a procedure that appears to need longer than expected in order to materialise.

It is interesting to note the case of the nine Reception Centres for refugees, each of them organised and run by statutory or voluntary bodies. There have been many complaints about the low living standards as well as the absence of follow-up mechanisms after users leave. The reason for the low quality of services to the specific users is more a matter of centrally planned strategy, which is often practically non-existent, rather than inability of social servants to cater for the specific users’ needs. Still, it must be noted that a multitude of voluntary sector organizations, such as the Red Cross, the Doctors of the World, the Greek Institute of Solidarity and Cooperation, the Centre of Social Solidarity in Thessaloniki along with the Greek Council for Refugees operate services which usually combine temporary accommodation with psychosocial support for immigrants and asylum seekers. In this manner, the overall delivery of services for immigrants is improved.

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4.4.

Indebtedness and Eviction

In Greece, failure to repay housing loans seldom ends in the repossession of property. A reason for this phenomenon is that, apart from subsidised loans from OEK, very few people obtained housing through mortgage using the commercial banking sector in the past as interest rates have been excessively high, often reaching the uppermost limit of 22%. As interest rates dropped 8 years ago, housing loans grew exponentially but, even though evidence suggests that the incidence of repayment failure is considerable, it appears too early for repossession procedures to be enforced.

On the other hand, OEK’s subsidised loans have a history of several decades with an exceptionally low repossession record because of the socially minded approach of both OEK and the supervising Ministry of Labour. In recent years, OEK’s loans are handled not only by the Organisation’s officials but mainly by the commercial bank that the client has chosen. It has been reported that even in cases of fairly large loans which are not easily repaid, borrowers finally end up conforming with their obligations.

It is very interesting to note however a specific case in which eviction has been enforced, the outcome being that Greece has been condemned by the European Committee for Social Rights (ECSR). The incident concerns the demolition of the illegal dwellings of the two Roma settlements of Makrigianni and Glafkos near the City of Patras by agencies of the municipality and the local police in October 2004.

The Committee declared that Greece has been violating the social rights of Roma people and above all, their housing right by not improving the condition of the settlements. As to forced evictions and other sanctions, the Committee notes that the government provides no real information on evictions, (either statistics, or remedies for those unlawfully evicted or examples of relevant case law). It fails either to comment on or contradict the information provided by the ERRC (European Centre for the Rights of the Roma Communities) on collective evictions of Roma both settled and itinerant without the provision of alternative housing and sometimes involving the destruction of personal property. “The Committee considers that illegal occupation of a site or dwelling may justify the eviction of the illegal occupants. However the criteria of illegal occupation must not be unduly wide, the eviction  15  

should take place in accordance with the applicable rules of procedure and these should be sufficiently protective of the rights of the persons concerned. The Committee considers that on these three grounds the situation is not satisfactory.”

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5
5.1.

POLICIES TARGETING THE MOST VULNERABLE

Introduction

The National Action Plan for Social Inclusion 2005 – 2006 is supposed to organise the approach towards the most vulnerable social groups. Still, the Plan remains to a large extent theoretical. As a result both central and local government agencies approach the issues in a fragmented manner. During the last year, a number of incidents relating to both good as well as bad practice in relation to vulnerable social groups have been reported.

One should note the ambivalent elements in the government’s approach to the wellbeing of pensioners, who as research points out, must be considered as the most vulnerable as well as numerous social group which is continually threatened by adverse housing conditions. Following a tedious controversy, pensions were given a 4% raise, just slightly higher than inflation rates. Similarly, the new legislative framework on retirement has pushed the threshold of retirement age higher than before.

5.2.

Domestic Abuse

On the issue of domestic violence, new separate services for women and children have been established in Athens and Thessaloniki. Yet, the phenomenon of domestic abuse, and possibly hidden homelessness, appears to have a stronger incidence than expected since as many as 3000 calls to the new operating telephone line have been reported.

In as much as trafficking is concerned, a small number of new hostels have been launched. However, as the Greek Helsinki monitoring committee reports, it appears that the law issued last year is not readily followed by government agencies as there has been evidence of refusing residence and working permit to victims of trafficking.

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5.3.

Immigrants

The Law on immigration which is currently under preparation appears to settle several items that have been burdening the foreign labour force with a lot of anxiety, as for example the procedure to acquire a residence as well as a working permit. Still, there has been a lot of criticism regarding the period of stay that is required in view of legalisation.

In relation to immigrants, the unsatisfactory standards of living in camps during their initial period of stay in Greece, as well as the absence of a strategy concerning the next phase, have already been discussed. It must be noted however that, during the last twelve months, a sizeable number of more or less scattered voluntary sector services supporting immigrants has emerged.

The good practice concerning the distribution of Olympic Village dwellings by the Workers’ Housing Organisation (OEK) has already been described in section 3.3. It must further be noted that the approach of commercial banks to immigrants has changed recently as they became more favourable to supply them with housing loans.

5.4.

Areas marked by exclusion

It is particularly interesting to note the failure of the governmental campaign to support and ameliorate living conditions in areas in crisis has focused its attention on extended parts of the cities’ outskirts where Roma communities and occasionally Greek immigrants from Pontos have constructed their living quarters. The programme of improving living conditions of such housing dates from nearly a decade ago but has been more or less inactive. Thus despite promises, Roma community settlements face increase degradation

Furthermore, one should note the appearance of new shanty towns in the periphery of Athens such as in Perama, the Roma community in Votanikos as well as the fairly extensive neighbourhoods made of containers, which were once used by 1999 earthquake victims and are now inhabited by immigrant families and other homeless people.

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It has also been reported that 250 families of repatriates from Pontos have been forced to live for the last 13 years in containers in Farkadona, Trikala.

There are many similar shanty towns spread around the country. Most of these are Roma settlements, like the one of 12000 people living in Zefyri. The inhabitants still wait for government’s promises for housing and infrastructure improvement to be fulfilled.

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