Meet our Summit hosts Shedia: the raft keeping Greece’s poor and homeless afloat

Less than a month after angry protesters returned to the streets of central Athens in response to more austerity measures – including pension cuts and tax hikes – thousands gathered in another corner of the city to celebrate music, love and solidarity.

Monday night saw the return of Shedia Live – a benefit gig for Greece’s street paper – Shedia, which is also set to co-host INSP’s 2016 Global Street Paper Summit in two weeks’ time.

Shedia helps 190 vendors in Greece earn a legitimate income. Credit: Shedia

Shedia’s founder and editor, Christos Alefantis, views the upcoming arrival of 120 delegates from 59 international street papers as a show of solidarity with the people of Greece as they struggle to survive day-to-day.

“Homelessness was always a word in the Greek dictionary, but it was never a reality in this part of the world. Over the last six years, this has changed,” he says.

“We aim for the INSP summit in Athens to be an important hub for knowledge exchange and networking between INSP members, as well as a source of inspiration for all.”

Just this week INSP’s annual summit has been hit by the ongoing Greek crisis, with one of the delegate hotels closing its doors due to financial difficulty.

“We have had our own small experience of what the Greek economic crisis must mean for people living in the country,” said INSP Chief Executive Maree Aldam. “Thankfully, we have been able to secure alternative accommodation, but we are thinking of the staff of the Ledra hotel, who are now without jobs.”

Since 2013, Shedia has lived up to its name [‘Raft’ in English] by offering those with few alternatives a way to earn a legitimate income.

But with the unemployment rate in Greece continuing to flatline at around 24% after six years of economic hardship, the country’s leading social enterprise has its work cut out.

Shedia has seen its ranks swell to a high of 190 vendors. Yet it isn’t enough to absorb the constant stream of hopeful new recruits turning up daily at the Shedia’s small office. There is a current waiting list of 40 people in Athens and a further 19 in Thessaloniki, Greece’s second largest city.

Christos admits it is frustrating to put a cap on the number of people that Shedia can support.

“In Athens, especially, it’s an ongoing struggle for us to find enough pitches,” he says. “This is always a key issue – how can we expand our vendors and still truly support them? It is very frustrating and sad because you want to help.”

A band performs at Shedia Live in Technopolis outdoor venue in Athens. Credit: Shedia

Luckily, sales have remained healthy. Christos says people in Greece have embraced the street paper model and appreciate what his staff and vendors are trying to do.

Despite cash and employment increasingly hard to come by, customers are sticking by their vendors, most of whom are victims of the financial crisis.

“Many people who buy Shedia could be vendors the next day. People seem to understand that now. There are even people who buy the paper who are themselves homeless,” says Christos.

Lefteris, 59, has sold Shedia for two years. He only had to wait one month before being issued with his red Shedia tabard and first stack of papers. Others have waited for as long as six months to join.

Like many Shedia vendors, he stands at his weekend pitch in Vrilissia, a northern suburb of Athens, for eight to nine hours a day. Vendors buy their copies for €1.50 and sell them for €3.

Even though vendors rotate their pitches during the week, Lefteris says regular customers will still seek him out.

“I have a very loyal customer, this lady finds out where I am and she will buy six or seven copies for her family. I always enjoy speaking with her,” he says.

“Some people buy more than one copy a month. Usually the first copy they will buy from the first vendor they see, the second they will buy from the vendor they see and really like.”

Lefteris has sold Shedia in Athens for two years. He saved enough money from his sales to rent an apartment. Credit: Shedia

Lefteris feels both humbled and guilty when customers he knows have little money themselves buy the paper, which is why he sometimes gives a few of the copies he has purchased away for free.

It’s a show of support that Christos says has buoyed Greek society for the past five years. “It is about solidarity and hope after all, and I think street papers all over the world are about hope,” he adds.

Before Shedia, Lefteris had been unemployed for seven years. When he lost his job in a bookshop in Thessaloniki, he struggled to find another. He eventually decided to try his luck in Athens but soon realised there was too much competition for too few jobs.

Thanks to Shedia, Lefteris now has a steady income and has saved enough money to rent his own apartment.

Shedia has helped in other ways too. The vendor says he used to be very shy and introverted around others. Since joining the street paper, he has grown in confidence and feels comfortable being part of a big family of vendors.

“There are times in the day when I feel very strongly that I’m part of a larger society. This job makes me feel useful,” he says.

“I remember when I once thanked a customer. This lady said, ‘No, I thank you because you are useful to us as a person, as is Shedia as a magazine.’ That made me feel very happy and emotional.”

Shedia vendors buy their copies for €1.50 and sell them for €3, pocketing the profits. Credit: Shedia

Originally from Crete, Lefteris dreams of one day returning to island life and opening a small, traditional Greek cafe.

“There’s a positive aura around this work. Good things are happening to me since I joined Shedia,” he adds.

During the INSP Summit, Lefteris will himself play host to French-Canadian vendor Guy Boyer, who sells L’Itinéraire in Montreal,

Despite the language barrier, he believes the pair will bond over their shared experiences.

“I feel like even though we don’t know each other, we already have so many things in common. Without having ever met him I feel close to him, as if he is a familiar person,” he adds.

While he is very happy to play host to his international colleague, there is one thing that concerns Lefteris: “I hope he doesn’t mind that I don’t have a TV!”