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Hygiene on wheels

A converted public bus presents the homeless of Athens with the chance to shower

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In this photo taken on Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2016, a homeless person leaves the shower bus run by the Greek Praksis,Non Governmental Organization, at Koumoundourou square in central Athens. Poverty rates have surged here since the start of the crisis in late 2009, with nearly 36 per cent of the country living in financial distress, according to European Unions statistics agency, Eurostat. Photo: AAP via AP/Thanassis Stavrakis

06 January 2017

It is no secret that Greek society is struggling to cope with the after effects of the ongoing financial crisis. Seven years of bankruptcy and harsh austerity led to a rise in unemployment and poverty.

Nearly 36 per cent of the population face dire financial straits and almost one in four Greeks live under the poverty line. The country has also seen a steep rise in homelessness.

It is telling of the urgent nature of the homelessness crisis that one of the main locations where homeless and refugees choose to camp out at, is Koumoundourou square, in the centre of Athens, opposite the main offices of the governing party Syriza.

Swamped with people in the most vulnerable state, the square is a living metaphor for the after-effects of the ongoing financial crisis. Refugees, petty criminals, police officers, desperate people (among them many children), and an army of charity workers and non-government organisation agents handing out meals.

Now there's a new feature on the square - a converted public bus where people living on the streets can take a hot shower and pick up clean underwear and a plastic bag of toiletries handed out by volunteers.

An initiative of NGO Praksis (devoted to offering medical care to those in need), funded by tobacco company 'Papastratos', the bus is part of the 'Care in motion' program, which caters to more than the hygiene needs of the homeless, as it also provides medical assistance and counselling.

Launched in November, the shower bus is the first program of its kind in Europe and the third worldwide, aiming to benefit more than 1,250 homeless people per month or 15,000 a year.

The exact number of people who sleep on the streets (or find a temporary roof in shelters) is hard to define. According to different accounts, it spans from 20,000 to 40,000, the majority of which are located in the metropolitan area of Athens. The most reliable recent study, made by the University of Crete found 15,436 people deprived of a home.

Though it's not easy to estimate how many of them actually sleep on the streets, it is accurate to say that they must be much more than the 630 cases accounted for in the 2011 census.

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