Two years ago, a man named Mr. Panayotis left his home in the Greek provinces in shame. No longer able to support himself or his family due to the country’s deteriorating financial crisis, he set off to make things right.
His plan: Embark on a boat to the U.S. to work with his brother, a successful businessman. But his ambitious idea failed; he only made it as far as Athens, where he became homeless, and continues to rely entirely on the capital city’s charities and social services.
“He is very, very much afraid,” says Marie Halaka, who met this man through her work at PRAKSIS, an NGO that offers a variety of social and medical services to vulnerable populations in Greece. “One day he saw his daughter, who is a student at a Greek university … and it was a good thing his own daughter did not recognize him,” she says, explaining the strong cultural taboo for a man to be unemployed, unable to feed his family.
Today, Panayotis’ story is not at all unique. As Greece hurls further into economic collapse, PRAKSIS and many other NGOs and charities in the Athens metropolitan area, where nearly 40% of the Greek population lives, are encountering a number of people from outside Greece’s major cities for the same reasons.
“Since the crisis began [in 2009], we found that the percentages of Greeks and migrants in our polyclinics were continuously changing — there was a severe increase in visitors who were Greek,” Halaka says.
More and more middle-class citizens are now in need of basic goods and services they never imagined they wouldn’t be able to afford — medical supplies, simple hygiene products, even food. Hunger and homelessness are on the rise. Banks remain closed, with only enough money left to give each person in the country 32 euros. People cannot pay to bury their dead. The suicide rate has increased significantly, suggesting a greater demand for mental health services to treat depression caused by the crisis.
The turbulent last few weeks are the culmination of years of austerity measures enacted after the global recession of 2008, which ended up cutting budgets for hospitals and pensions, while unemployment rates still increased (and is currently at more than 25%). A week after Greeks voted OXI (“no”) in a July 5 referendum on further spending cuts, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras conceded, and Greece’s parliament accepted those very same measures on Friday anyway. The European Union is discussing these measures on Sunday, deciding whether to give Greece a bailout package that would keep the country afloat for the next two years.
But for the Greek people, how the European Union votes is essentially a matter of austerity versus poverty. Greek citizens will continue to face desperate times, regardless of the outcome.
As a result, NGOs are struggling to keep Greece on its feet, filling the gaps where the public sector no longer has the means to help and focusing on Greece’s most vulnerable populations — the homeless, elderly, children, migrants and refugees, the many poor and recently poor.
An image of one of PRAKSIS’ mobile units, which offers free HIV and hepatitis tests.
PRAKSIS, for example, focused on health when it was founded in 2004, but due to the financial crisis has had to expand to more holistic services for the 80,000 people it currently serves each year. It offers shelter, vaccines and medicine, legal and psychological services, and more.
But Halaka says health services and supplies — vaccines, medications, exam kits — remain the most dire need, as more than 800,000 Greeks have been cut off from medical access due to poverty or lack of insurance. Individuals and pharmacies often donate the necessary supplies, but PRAKSIS still needs to buy many itself. And options are running out.
“If this situation we’re in now is not getting stabilized, we will have to face a complete collapse of the health system in Greece. According to some hospitals, their medication stocks are enough until the end of August. We really wonder what will happen with stocks of medicine, but also components needed for medical examinations,” Halaka says.
Nikitas Kanakis, president of Greece’s branch of Medicins du Monde (Doctors of the World, or MDM), says the same. He tells Mashable that, while the situation is stable right now because of stocked supplies, most donations have stopped due to the bank closures.
“In the next weeks, we will have a problem. And we can’t prepare, because we don’t actually know what will be the result of the negotiations,” Kanakis says. In advance of Sunday’s discussions, MDM has reached out to its sister organizations around the world for help with the Greece branch’s many patients (which totaled 80,000 last year).
Kanakis specifically mentions the elderly, who often have additional needs when it comes to medicine, and have little money to support their families due to cut pensions.
“It’s my understanding that the people we serve are under a little shock now,” he says. “We actually see fewer people these days, because they are looking for food. The concern for them is how they will survive.“
And yet, survival isn’t a new worry by any means. Over the past six years, Greek citizens’ needs have largely remained the same — albeit, they have become more alarming.
“Nothing’s changed, other than the fact that it’s just worse than it was before,” says Alexia Katsaounis, president and cofounder of DESMOS, which works to get supplies and services to the NGOs that need them. “It’s not as if right now the country is in an emergency state of panic and nothing exists; everything is still working as it was, but everyone’s just waiting for that final click to see which way it’s going to go.”
DESMOS was founded in 2012 as a result of the worsening financial crisis, when the humanitarian and social consequences were already very visible throughout the country. It acts as an intermediary, working to obtain surplus goods as donations from individuals and the private sector, and using its infrastructure — storage units and distribution vans — to help NGOs throughout Greece’s Attica region that don’t have access.
Ekavi Valleras, cofounder of DESMOS, says supply shortages are definitely a concern, especially as hospitals run out and suppliers demand to be paid upfront for materials. This means larger institutions are tapping into their own stored supplies, which are gradually running out.
For the organizations DESMOS works with, Valleras has seen the greatest needs for baby formula, diapers, nonperishable food and personal hygiene supplies — “your essential goods, survival goods,” she tells Mashable.
“But in light of what’s going, I feel Greeks and NGOs are handling things very calmly. We don’t feel panic from anyone. But we are worried that if the instability continues, we would need a new way to engage people or companies in donating,” she says.
The challenge is tapping the private sector at all levels, locating and ensuring donations that will maintain the flow of these essential goods. Russell Hargrave, media manager at UK-based charity think tank and consultancy NPC, advises NGOs to appeal to supporters’ compassion as well as their business sense.
“Philanthropists all over the world are increasingly smart and increasingly savvy. They are driven by compassion for the problems they see … Prove to the people who support your work or want to support your work that it’s really effective,” he says.
Then, it’s up to charities to show the impact as well as remaining challenges. NGO efforts can inspire change in policy — in other words, charities can feed the hungry, but also need to work to change the system that makes people hungry in the first place. That shows how important donated money and supplies are, encouraging others to do the same.
It also positions philanthropists as opinion leaders, showing what works well, and potentially inspiring future government spenders.
Over the past few years, DESMOS has witnessed people, both locally and internationally, are willing to help, even when they don’t have much to give. Valleras says Thom Feeney, a UK-based entrepreneur who launched an Indiegogo campaign called “Greek Bailout Fund” at the end of June, contacted DESMOS to collaborate on a new campaign: Greek Crowdfund.
Since Feeney failed to reach his 1.6 billion euro goal in the first campaign — and the raised 1.9 million euros was refunded to all donors — he’s now trying to raise 1 million euros in collaboration with DESMOS to address shortages of supplies and help basic operational programs.
“That’s really heartwarming and encouraging — that even though it feels within Greece that we might be running out of choices, an international community of people is looking out for Greece, and stepping in to donate and help address the humanitarian social problems we’re thinking are going to increase,” Valleras says.
Halaka says the same for PRAKSIS, which has garnered support from people around the world who are aware of the situation and want to help.
“This last week, I’ve been receiving emails from U.S. citizens, from Canada, from the UK — people who have never been to Greece — and they want to help. That’s great, and very touching to us,” Halaka says.
Despite international attention, a rocky road is ahead, and all eyes are on the European Union this weekend to see just how tumultuous that road will be.
“Whatever the outcome of Sunday or Monday is, one thing is certain,” Halaka says. “We are in the most demanding moment of these five, six years of crisis we have been coping with. We are in dire straits, and we are not going out easily.”