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Secondhand bookstore empowers Greece's homeless

June 15, 2019 - Author: Demetrios Ioannou

Relegated to the ranks of Greeks made homeless during the country's economic crisis, one 70-year-
old man reclaimed some of his past glory by taking matters into his own hands. Demetrios Ioannou  
reports from Athens.

When Leonidas Koursoumis first saw the 400 square meter (4,300 square foot) storehouse, full of  
dust and leftover building materials, near the center of Athens in February, he was speechless. He  
knew that even though a lot of work needed to be done, this was a big step toward making his dream  
come true: to create Greece's first secondhand bookstore run exclusively by homeless people.

For the 70-year-old the previous seven years had been the most difficult in his entire life. After losing  
his job at the publishing house where he worked for nearly 17 years in early 2012, job opportunities  
were limited. "It is very difficult for someone my age to find a job," Leonidas pointed out.

Read more: Greeks stuck in lousy, part-time jobs as government claims success

Divorced for 25 years, at the time he was living alone in an apartment in downtown Athens. He  
occasionally made a little money running small errands, but that only covered his basic needs. When  
that dried up, he left his apartment and for a while was able to live for free in a friend's place. With his  
savings, he later rented a cheap flat in the Kypseli neighborhood. For the first few months he was  
doing fine, but eventually his money ran out.

Unable to pay the rent, Leonidas was evicted from his home and started spending his days and  
nights wandering the streets of Athens. "When I was walking, whenever I felt tired I looked for a quiet  
place to sleep. I've slept on the ground, in the entrances of apartment buildings in Athens many  

Homelessness in years of crisis

Leonidas is far from alone in that. More and more people have found themselves without a home  
since the beginning of the country's deep economic recession, which started in late 2009. The  
unemployment rate has doubled over the past decade. Many have lost their jobs and, unable to find  
new ones, ended up on the streets - a story shared by most of those made homeless in Greece since  
the economic crisis began.

"In the beginning it was about 70% foreigners and 30% Greeks [who were homeless]. This has  
changed drastically in the past few years, especially after 2015," said Eleni Katsouli, president of the  
Athens Reception and Solidarity Center (KYADA), which serves people in need. "When there is an  
economic crisis in a country, you don't realize it the moment the crisis hits, because everyone has  
savings in the bank. But the crisis lasted longer than expected, and the savings are well gone. And  
we all have become poorer."

Though Greece officially exited its third and final international bailout program last August, it will still  
take much more time and effort to recover completely. And the country's weak economy is not the  
only reason for homelessness, Eleni Katsouli points out. "Airbnb completely destroyed everything,"  
she said of the new reality the Greek capital faces. "When someone's income is €550 ($620) per  
month and [landlords] want €400 for a flat, what will this person do? Pay the rent, the bills or for  

Read more: Airbnb rentals squeeze out students, disabled in Cologne collective

According to a 2017 report by FEANTSA (European Federation of National Organizations Working  
with the Homeless) about 15,000 people are without a home in the wider region of the Attica  
peninsula, which includes the Greek capital. The actual number though is hard to estimate, as many  
never ask for help. "I was too proud to let anyone know what I was going through," said Leonidas. "I  
was ashamed and soon depression hit me. I became completely isolated."

Building a new life

As he wandered the streets Leonidas usually spent his time looking for books that had been  
discarded in trashcans, which he collected and later sold to secondhand book stalls in Athens' flea  
market for a few euros. This gave him the idea to open his own secondhand bookstore, where he  
and the friends he met on the streets - fellow homeless people - could work and make a living.

On a winter's morning in January he woke up determined to make his idea a reality. By this point he  
had made a home for himself in a storeroom behind a friend's office. He issued a call on Facebook,  
asking for people to donate books they didn't want anymore. On that first day alone, more than 900  
people shared his post. Soon, Greek media picked up on it and started writing about him, helping his  
story to go viral across the country. This generated a whole wave of people wanting to support his  
cause, and dozens of packages full of books, sometimes used, sometimes brand new, started  
arriving at his door.

"We received books from all over the country. We have approximately 50,000 books for sale right  
now," he said with pride. His book bazaar found its current temporary home thanks to an anonymous  

That first official call to donate was a huge success, as were the ones that followed. "The money we  
got covered renting a house for six months," he said with a smile.

Today Leonidas has even bigger dreams: He is hopeful that he and his friends can regain part of  
their old lives. He wants to create a community center run by the homeless for the homeless at the  
new permanent spot he has found in the Tavros neighborhood. He hopes to move his secondhand  
bookshop in the next couple of weeks. He wants to help as many homeless people as possible.

"Everything I'm doing now, I do it because I loved all of the people I met on the streets over the past  
years. I don't do it for me, to look good. I do it for them."

The number of homeless people in Athens has swelled dramatically in recent years
As the years go by, I see more and more homeless people," said Eleni Katsouli. "Numerous people visit us
every day."
KYADA offers more than 1,300 meals to people in need every day and operates two guest rooms
with space for 200
Leonidas Koursoumis' bookstore is open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. People come to buy books or to offer ones they no longer need