At 8 a.m. one day in early April, amid the busy commuters in Syntagma Square, central Athens, a 77-year-old man shot himself with a handgun.
“The Government has stripped me of my dignity,” read the suicide note retrieved by his daughter, “the only way I can ensure my family is not burdened with debts is to take my own life.”
The words of pensioner Dimitris Christoulas are fast becoming a Greek chorus: personal tragedy echoed in nationwide woes. His political suicide also conjures up the memory of Tunisian Mohammed Bouazizi, the 26-year-old illegal vegetable trader who in 2011 set himself on fire protesting against levels of unemployment in his country and igniting unrest across the Middle East.
More than half of Greece’s 16- to 24-year-olds are unemployed, and
eu-imposed austerity measures in Greece have had a visible impact over the past two years. Homelessness estimates have soared to more than 20,000, and the average salary has dropped by more than 30 percent. Having traditionally depended on a family-orientated culture to look after the poorest in its society, it is becoming quickly apparent that the Greek state lacks sufficient welfare infrastructure to deal with the sheer rate and number of those forced onto the streets.
Enter 46-year-old Chris Alefantis, who plans to launch monthly magazine “Shedia” (which means “raft” in English) to be sold on the streets of Athens by homeless and long-term unemployed people, similar to Seattle’s Real Change. The aim of street newspapers is simple — to help the poorest people help themselves by providing a unique job opportunity. A street paper vendor buys a copy of the magazine at a price of 50 percent or lower than the cover price and sells it to the public, keeping the profits.
For a patriarchal society endowed with some deeply held notions of Greek machismo, the concept of selling a magazine while making a public admission of poverty is a revolutionary idea. But Alefantis believes that the Greek people are ready.
“We are confident that if we can produce a truly independent top quality street paper, people will respond since the money will partly go to help one of their compatriots,” says Alefantis. “If you tried to talk to Greeks about rough sleeping five or six years ago, it would have been impossible. Homeless people were considered completely alien. Now the problem has exploded and people realize it could happen to them tomorrow. It is part of their daily lives.”
A journalist by profession and a former editor of Greek monthly satirical magazine, Kalera, Alefantis first became interested in homelessness while living in Australia and reporting on the homeless football team in Sydney. He volunteered to chair the Greek homeless football team on his return to Greece in 2005. While the team has had limited success on the pitch, the seeds of Shedia were sown when the Copenhagen Homeless World Cup introduced Alefantis to the International Network of Street Papers (insp) and its group of 122 publications.
The topsy-turvy circumstances leading Shedia to join this global roster is a distinct echo of those which prompted the uk launch of The Big Issue, which was founded in 1991 to tackle a dramatic rise in rough sleeping on the streets of London.
Does Alefantis think there are enough vendor recruits to sustain their business in the long-term?
“We have about 65 vendors signed up so far,” he says.
“Of these people, just two are women and about a third is homeless due to the financial crisis. Some of the younger people we meet in homeless hostels are refugees or asylum seekers from Afghanistan and Iraq, some also from Equatorial Guinea and Sierra Leone.”
Some unexpected candidates have also come forward. Alefantis was staggered when two of his close and professionally trained friends said they would be up for selling the magazine when it launched. A 37-year-old graphic designer and single mother and a 27-year-old photographer, who have both been out of work for over a year, told Alefantis they would gladly take up the opportunity to become vendors.
“People are desperate for work,” says Alefantis. “Greece has experienced a brain drain. Those who can leave have already left. People have asked me, why I haven’t gone back to Australia? I couldn’t. This is a life project for me and our team. We believe in what we are doing and are absolutely convinced of our success.”
Yet ongoing political turmoil has forced the Shedia editorial team to repeatedly delay their launch, possibly until September.
“Greece is making international headlines for all the wrong reasons,” says Alefantis sadly. “We cannot launch in the midst of all this chaos. Until the recalled election is over and Greece knows where its political future lies, all our plans must be put on hold. It’s incredibly frustrating. We set the price of the magazine to three euros fifty (equivalent to the price of a pack of Marlboro cigarettes). Everything will have to change if Greece goes back to the drachma.”
Public disillusionment gives greater clout to Alefantis’ belief that “poor journalism, cronyism and a close relationship with the corrupt political establishment” are driving people away from Greek mainstream media channels that are seen to have failed the people.
Transparency International (ti), the global organization that monitors levels of national corruption, ranked Greece as 80th in its 2011 Corruption Perception Index, second to last out of European nations and on a level pegging with Colombia. There is hope the introduction of a fresh, politically independent media voice could begin to shake things up.
“There are so many unemployed people at the moment,” says Costas Bakouris, chairman of ti in Greece. “If this magazine sells, then it will truly be a unique proposition on the Greek media landscape.”
The political picture would suggest Greece is now looking inward for change, rather than expecting it from Berlin, Brussels or Paris. The immediate future may belong to leftist Syriza party leader Alex Tsipras, who is poised to win the most votes at the June 17 election. He wishes to overturn the punishing austerity imposed by the eu’s finance ministers. While northern Europe frets about an imminent crisis of contagion, Tsipras has made it clear the Greek people are already living with day-to-day crisis and desperately need new ideas.
“After two and a half years of catastrophe, Greeks are on their knees,” he said after his party’s success at the polls in April. “The social state has collapsed, one in two youngsters is out of work, there are people leaving en masse, the climate psychologically is one of pessimism, depression, mass suicides… That’s why it is so important to stop the (austerity) experiment. It will not just be a victory for Greece but for all of Europe.”
At a time when there seems to be little positive news on the Greek economic horizon, any answers to the dire problem of destitution are welcome — answers street paper Shedia promises to provide. “I’m not sure if anything can ‘save’ Greece at the moment. It seems like everything is set to get worse,” Alefantis said. “However,” he says in a brighter tone, “we are like you — we can be part of the solution.”
Greece’s new street paper will be in good company. There are now 122 publications in the International Network of Street Papers (insp), a network stretching across 40 countries and five continents.