Like the other dilapidated houses on the block next to the train tracks, the Klimaka shelter for the homeless is covered with bold graffiti. They practically blot out its tomato-red façade and certainly distract attention from the name on its open door. I must have passed it several times on strolls through the formerly industrial district of Gazi in search of a tapas, wine or sushi bar.
In fact, it's just two blocks from the new Kerameikos metro station plaza, which has become a favorite Athenian hangout. Since the transformation of the nearby 19th century gas works into a municipal cultural center, the area known as "Gazi" has acquired scores of up-market restaurants, nightclubs, theaters, galleries -- even a gay hammam and a top notch art museum.
Down there, it's so lively on weekends, so teaming with well-dressed couples, groups of friends of any age, teenagers in slit jeans, young families with kids and iPhones, that you would be forgiven for believing all's right in Athena's city.
But go back to that little red house, step inside and enter the world of the new homeless.
That's what they're calling them, the thousands of people -- mostly men in their 30s and 40s -- who have been laid off and evicted for failure to pay their rent or mortgages in the last year or two.
Klimaka is one of only a few organizations set up to deal with this sudden shredding of the Greek social contract. An NGO founded in 2000 by Kyriakos Katsadoros, a psychiatrist, Klimaka originally aimed at providing support for then-vulnerable members of society: addicts, gypsies, immigrants, the mentally unstable who'd been released from institutions, and other misfits.
They never expected that ordinary working and middle class Greeks would be turning up on their doorstep, hoping for a meal or a floor to sleep on.
At 5:30 when I arrived with supper -- my friend Takis has been cooking for the shelter every Wednesday for the last ten years -- the place was quiet. In the tiny courtyard, under a lemon tree and two umbrella-type gas heaters, a dozen men in dark jackets were huddled over three backgammon boards (the national sport, after soccer and basketball). On one side, blankets and sleeping bags were stacked against the wall to about six feet, protected from the damp by plastic sheeting.
We put the food in the kitchen, which had barely room for two people, and then popped our heads into the office to the right of the courtyard. Snug and warm, its colorful walls -- sunflower yellow, hyacinth blue with green, red and purple details -- could not have been cheerier. Quite the opposite of the traditional grimy white or waiting-room green of State organizations. It had two desks with computers, two sofas, one chair, a circular gas heater and next to it a cat, that never budged in the two hours I was there.
The smiles on Effie and Athanasia, the two young women who run the center were just as welcoming. Though employed, they do extra hours as volunteers, offering professional counseling, practical help in getting social benefits, job interviews, information on food and shelter. With her 1930s-style cap, black and grey sweater and jeans, Effie looked like a female version of Jackie Cooper in The Kid.
I was puzzled. Where do the homeless sleep? She pointed to a door on the other side of the courtyard.
The shelter's third room was full to bursting. Half the occupants were watching a large-screen TV, others slept on their folded arms, others simply sat. After supper, most of them would have to go back into the cold, for there is only space on the floor for 17-20 bodies... and one bathroom.
In the kitchen, Takis was whisking instant mashed potatoes in two army-sized pots with the help of Spyros, a former sea captain. "I lived in another hostel for two years, a Red Cross shelter for six months, and I used to come here to help out," he told me in English. "Now they give me a room to myself upstairs and in exchange I cook for about ten people every night. Shall I make you a cup of my special hibiscus tea?"
Surprised at the offer of such an exotic drink, I of course accepted, but just then Effie came to tell me that Ada Alamanou, Klimaka's PR head, had arrived. "She's the one to talk to," said Effie.
In a blue baby-doll smock dress, black sweater and tights, blonde Ada could be an eccentric artist, but she speaks with the assurance of someone who knows her job and the warmth of someone who loves people. She put out her cigarette and came to sit next to me on the sofa:
Here we're all volunteers. We rely on donations but they are never enough. One of our big problems is that there is no formal recognition of the homeless status. We need to know who they are in order to provide the right help. And now we are dealing with a new category -- "normal" people who up to recently had an organized way of life. They had no psychological problems, they were not illegal.
The new homeless are between 30 and 40 years-old or just below retirement age. They were construction workers, shop owners, people involved in the tourism business. Often they have families, but they're ashamed to reveal their situation and they don't want to be a burden. Greeks are nothing if not proud. Or their relatives, too, may barely be able to make ends meet.
We have multiple missions. The first is keeping people in their own homes. Second, we try to restore them to normal life as fast as possible. We'd like to run our hostel on the American model, as a base where you can spend the night safely, have a shower and go out in the morning and face the world, look for a job. And finally, of course, we have to care for those who are permanently homeless.
Ada interrupts herself to talk to a well-to-do couple who have just delivered some blankets in response to an appeal that sped round the Internet last week.
So I turn to Aris Violatzis, a portly psychologist who helps man Klimaka's 24/7 suicide prevention phone line. He's a professor at Athens University as well as a volunteer and has come with four of his women students to help serve supper.
They'll be needed. By now the courtyard is so jammed it's like the proverbial subway at rush hour.
"The Greek people do not deserve what is happening. We may have made mistakes, but we're paying too high a price."
Outside dinner -- stuffed chicken roll (which Takis prepared at home) and mashed spuds -- is being served. The young women are passing plates around and everyone politely waits his or her turn. Squeezing through the crowd, I talk to a man in his 60s who despite being hungry keeps to his vegetarian principles. A handsome young Lebanese man speaks to me in English; his Greek girlfriend looks away, shy, bored or ashamed. An older Greek woman tells me she used to live in Hempstead, LI, while two Albanians explain they have been laid off from construction work. Virtually nothing is being built in Greece these days.
Says Emilian, "I'd really like a visa to the States. Can you help?"
His friend keeps asking if the kitchen is also serving Cokes.
I can't help with either request.
It's time to leave. Takis has finished his work. I return to the office to say goodbye.
I'm almost speechless at the order in this chaos, the palpable atmosphere of caring and good will that this packed shelter emanates. I'd been told about isolated cases of nighttime violence in the past, but now Aris tells me, "We who work at Klimaka help each other. Our greatest achievement is that our beneficiaries run the place."
My eyes fill with tears as I turn to Ada. Words fail me so we hug instead.
In the car, Takis says, "Guess how many we fed tonight? Ninety. That's 20 more than last week, which was already 20 more than the week before that. When I started, and for years afterwards, we could count on having about 15, then 30, show up. It's getting harder and harder to cater for them. But somehow, I always manage to have enough."
For more information on Klimaka, go to www.klimaka.org.gr (Greek only) but Googling Klimaka will turn up more articles in English. Any donations sent to their account at the National Bank of Greece GR90 0110 1380 0000 1384 8010 248.
No one knows exactly how many homeless there are in Athens, never mind the rest of Greece. Estimates run as high as 25,000 and more are joining their ranks every week.