(Repeats Monday item)
* Poverty rate doubles despite billions in aid
* Most Greeks struggle to cover costs, surveys show
* More depending on soup kitchens, handouts
* Wider Image photo essay: reut.rs/2lz2xn6
By Karolina Tagaris
ATHENS, Feb 20 Greek pensioner Dimitra says she
never imagined a life reduced to food handouts: some rice, two
bags of pasta, a packet of chickpeas, some dates and a tin of
milk for the month.
At 73, Dimitra - who herself once helped the hard-up as a
Red Cross food server - is among a growing number of Greeks
barely getting by. After seven years of bailouts that poured
billions of euros into their country, poverty isn't getting any
better; it's getting worse like nowhere else in the EU.
"It had never even crossed my mind," she said, declining to
give her last name because of the stigma still attached to
accepting handouts in Greece. "I lived frugally. I've never even
been on holiday. Nothing, nothing, nothing."
Now more than half of her 332 euro ($350) monthly income
goes to renting a tiny Athens apartment. The rest: bills.
The global financial crisis and its fallout forced four euro
zone countries to turn to international lenders. Ireland,
Portugal and Cyprus all went through rescues and are back out,
their economies growing again. But Greece, the first into a
bailout in 2010, has needed three.
Rescue funds from the European Union and International
Monetary Fund saved Greece from bankruptcy, but the austerity
and reform policies the lenders attached as conditions have
helped to turn recession into a depression.
Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, whose leftist-led government
is lagging in opinion polls, has tried to make the plight of
Greeks a rallying cry in the latest round of drawn-out
negotiations with the lenders blocking the release of more aid.
"We must all be careful towards a country that has been
pillaged and people who have made, and are continuing to make,
so many sacrifices in the name of Europe," he said this month.
Much of the vast sums in aid money has simply been in the
form of new debt used to repay old borrowings. But regardless of
who is to blame for the collapse in living standards, poverty
figures from the EU statistics agency are startling.
Greece isn't the poorest member of the EU; poverty rates are
higher in Bulgaria and Romania. But Greece isn't far behind in
third place, with Eurostat data showing 22.2 percent of the
population were "severely materially deprived" in 2015.
And whereas the figures have dropped sharply in the
post-communist Balkan states - by almost a third in Romania's
case - the Greek rate has almost doubled since 2008, the year
the global crisis erupted. Overall, the EU level fell from 8.5
percent to 8.1 percent over the period.
GRAPHIC-Greece in the poverty table tmsnrt.rs/2m0GiHW
THE NEEDS ARE HUGE
The reality of such statistics becomes clear at places like
the food bank run by the Athens municipality where Dimitra
collects her monthly handouts.
Here, dozens more Greeks waited solemnly with a ticket in
hand to get their share. All are registered as living below the
poverty line of about 370 euros a month.
"The needs are huge," said Eleni Katsouli, a municipal
official in charge of the centre.
Figures for the food bank, which serves central Athens, show
a similar trend on a local scale to the wider Eurostat data.
About 11,000 families - or 26,000 people - are registered there,
up from just 2,500 in 2012 and 6,000 in 2014, Katsouli said.
About 5,000 are children.
Many of the shelves and refrigerators in its stock room
stood empty. What they give away depends on what sponsors -
themselves often struggling businesses - can donate.
"We're worried because we don't know if we'll be able to
meet these people's needs," Katsouli said. "There are families
with young children and on some days we haven't even got milk to
'WE JUST EXIST'
International organisations, including the Organisation for
Economic Co-operation and Development, have urged the government
to prioritise tackling poverty and inequality.
Unemployment has slipped from a peak of 28 percent of the
workforce to 23 percent but the rate remains the highest in the
EU. Since the crisis began, the economy has shrunk by a quarter
and thousands of businesses have closed for good.
Hopes are high the economy can pick up this year but data
last week showed it contracted again from October to December
after two straight quarters of growth.
Better living standards seem as far away as ever. Over 75
percent of households suffered a significant income reduction
last year, a survey by business confederation GSEVEE and Marc
pollsters found. A third had at least one unemployed member and
40 percent said they had to cut back on food spending.
The Greek Ombudsman says a growing number of people struggle
to pay utility bills. In a no-frills Athens neighbourhood, a
soup kitchen run by the Orthodox church serves 400 meals a day
over four sittings in under two hours.
"Everyone is going through hard times - all of Greece is,"
said Eva Agkisalaki, 61, a former teacher who volunteers there.
Agkisalaki did not qualify for a pension because her
contract ended when the retirement age was lifted to 67 under
the bailout programme and she could not find work, she said.
Part of her husband's pension, cut to 600 euros from 980 also
under reforms demanded by the international lenders, goes to her
son and daughter's families.
In return for volunteering, Agkisalaki receives handouts
from the soup kitchen which she shares among her unemployed
daughter and her son.
"We're vegetating," she said between setting a long wooden
table for the next meal of bean soup, bread, an egg, a slice of
pizza and an apple. "We just exist. Most Greeks just exist."
Evangelia Konsta, who oversees the centre and whose business
supplies the meat, said the number of people eating at the soup
kitchen has more than doubled in two years and the church often
also helps cover people's electricity or water bills too.
"Things are getting worse, they're not getting better and
that's reflected in people's needs," Konsta said. "There are
people who haven't even got 1 euro."
Across Athens, the number of Greeks sleeping rough is a
testament to that. Volunteers drive a van with two washing
machines and two dryers to neighbourhoods where the homeless
gather to help them clean up.
"You see the same faces, but also new ones," said Fanis
Tsonas, co-founder of the Ithaca mobile laundry, as destitute
men and women brought bags of laundry.
Few are hopeful of better days.
"I don't think there's one person who's not afraid of the
future," said Dimitra, the pensioner, clutching her plastic bag
of rationed goods.
($1 = 0.9422 euros)
(Editing by David Stamp)