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Global Recession: Leon (64), Greece

 INSP 26 July 2019

Leon is what the Greeks call a 'neo-homeless', one of the thousands of citizens who have been hit hard by the latest severe economic crisis and find themselves without a place to live. Current estimates bring the total number of people classified as 'neo-homeless' in Greece to 20,000. (1077 Words) - By Chris Alefantis

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1. A recent survey, by the International Network of Street Papers (INSP) reveals that 72% of street papers have seen a change in their vendor base, mainly caused by the ecnomic crisis. Leon (right) seen here at an emergency shelter Klimaka, is one of the many effected by Greece's economic crisis.  Photo: Myrto Papadopoulos

"It is his last line of defence... his own way of protecting his privacy" - explains Anda Alamanou, media officer for the Greek emergency shelter Klimaka - when he first introduced us to 64-year-old Leon. The man refused to provide his surname for this interview, or any interview, though he had no qualms about sharing his personal fortunes and misfortunes in great detail.

Leon  has been living at Klimaka, an NGO in downtown Athens, since last October. An iconographer by trade, Leon's upright posture, glowing brown eyes and well-kept white beard give him an aura of confidence - even optimism. In fact, he is both confident and optimistic.

"I am an optimistic homeless person!" he exclaims, smiling humbly.

Leon traces his family roots back to Constantinople. His family moved to Athens when he was still a child. His father wanted him to become a doctor - something he tried to accomplish. In 1965, he moved to London, where he enrolled in the London School of Medicine. He dropped out six months later, not being able to cope with the often-gruesome realities of the human body.

"I just could not do it. That stench coming out of the human bone, when it was cut at a 45-degree angle by our tutor… It is still in my nostrils. It was just unbearable."

"After all, what I really wanted to do was to go to an Art School," he adds.

So Leon returned to London a year later, enrolling in the Harrow Art School and graduated four years later.

Upon his return to Greece, Leon found employment in the travel business. His successful career in the travel industry lasted for five years. In 1977, he was employed as an English teacher.

His love for the Arts, however, was a flame that refused to die.

"In 1994, I decided to dedicate myself to my love for the Arts. I knew that I would hardly be able to make a living by painting but I had saved enough money by that time to feel comfortable enough about embarking on my new career."

Leon turned to iconography - he felt it was the only way he could combine his love for painting with making a decent living from art.

"Things went quite well for a while. Business was good, as I quickly built up a sound customer base. There was, in fact, a two year period, [from] 2003 to 2004 [when Athens hosted the Olympic Games] when business was excellent. It lasted until 2009, when all of a sudden, things started to change as the economic crisis crept in. In 2010, the amount of orders I received was halved. In 2011, my business was virtually decimated. My debts piled up - I could no longer afford to pay my rent and I knew I was fast approaching a dead-end. One night last September, I got a knock on my door. It was my landlord with the eviction notice. I was expecting his visit the next morning but I had not bothered to pack up my stuff".

Leon re-enacts the ensuing conversation, "'Why haven't you packed up,' the landlord asked in anger. 'I don't need anything,' I said. 'Keep it.'"

So Leon placed few pieces of clothing in a bag, leaving everything else behind.

"In my first days of rough sleeping, I was overwhelmed by a feeling of relief," Leon recalls. "For the very first time - for as long as I could remember - I did not have to worry about money, debtors and other obligations…"

Agios Panteleimon Square became his shelter. He slept rough for about 45 days, before his son managed to find him a bed in the Klimaka NGO Shelter.

"My son is 30 years old. When he found out that I was homeless, he rushed to my help. He gave me money and he found me shelter. He did the best he could. He comes to see me quite regularly, actually," says Leon.

"I know that he would take me home if he could, but he is living with my ex-wife and she would want to hear about it…" he adds.

Despite his homelessness, Leon seems to lack regrets.

"I have lived a wonderful life. I have traveled all around the world. As a matter of fact, I have made more trips than a pensioner-to-be can ever plan or dream of. I had a great group of friends that I used to go out with, to tavernas, cafes, cinemas, you name it. I would do all the things that any ordinary person would do. I am an optimistic homeless person. I know I will be back", he reiterates.

This optimism is not groundless.

At 64, Leon expects to get his pension next year (old age pension in Greece is granted at the age of 65). After countless years of making considerable contributions to his Pension State Fund, his monthly payment check should be enough for him to rent his own place. Add to this the extra income he anticipates from selling his religious icons, and you have a full picture of a man who is not willing to give up. On the contrary - Leon is looking forward to the future in eager anticipation.

On this basis, he is quite a minority - a person, living in Greece, that still has something to look forward to. Scores of others are not so privileged.

Hopefully, Leon will keep living in the Klimaka shelter. There, he is provided with a bed and a daily portion of food. The Klimaka staff bought him the tools of his trade: the paints and canvases he needs to continue work on his icons, which he occasionally sells to earn some money.

So what has been the most difficult thing Leon's had to deal with lately? A lack of privacy when living in the Klimaka shelter, he responds. And greatest fear for the future?  The future of his son.

Leon, like any parent, wonders what his son will do with his life. But more importantly perhaps, he considers the world in which his potential grandchild could live.

"It is scary."

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