PAPHOS charity Solidarity, which has provided a lifeline for thousands of needy people over the past four years, will close its doors in the middle of May as the numbers who need help have now plummeted.
A gradual improvement in the economy, a greater availability of jobs largely in the booming tourist sector and improved state aid for low income families have slashed the numbers of those in real need of help. This means Solidarity’s monthly operational overheads can no longer be justified, one of the charity’s founders, George Sofokleous, told the Sunday Mail.
“We were feeding more than 800 families and now the numbers are somewhere around 100, and only 50 of these are in dire straits. Solidarity costs around 2000 euros a month to run,” said Sofokleous, who is also a Paphos councillor. “We are happy to have helped so many people, and slowly the economy is better. People will always need help, but thankfully the numbers are now very small.”
Solidarity’s closure follows that of the Paphos municipality social welfare grocery, which was also helping hundreds of families. It was closed at the end of April on orders from the labour ministry, said a municipality spokesman.
The last food parcels were handed out on April 27 and families were given four times their usual allowance to help ‘get them through’.
“We were helping around 500 families but now there are only about 50 in urgent need,” a spokesman said.
Solidarity was started four years ago by local business woman Pavlina Patsalou and Sofokleous and at first helped around 20 families in need. Patsalou has since had to step down due to ill health.
As the crisis hit hard in the wake of the bailout in 2013, the numbers of needy mushroomed to around 850 families of all nationalities.
In September 2013, demand was so great that there were emotional scenes outside the Solidarity headquarters when 100 families, including mothers with babies, were turned away after volunteers ran out of food. It was able to reopen its doors following an overwhelming show of public generosity with food and other donations coming in from all over the island.
Sofokleous said that as the government is now providing assistance to low-income families, charities such as Solidarity are no longer necessary.
The ministry of labour, welfare and social insurance approved more than 25,160 households for the guaranteed minimum income (GMI) benefit last year. This equates to €75m which was paid by the state in 2015, with GMI beneficiaries reaching around 45,000 people, according to Labour Minister Zeta Emilianidou.
The purpose of the GMI scheme is to cover the most vulnerable groups – low-pension earners, the long-term unemployed, low-income employees and the self-employed.
“Many people now have work for the summer season, the economy is improving generally, and if there are those in need, there are other places they can go such as clubs, associations and churches,” said Sofokleous.
Christiana Nikolaou, the volunteer manager at Solidarity, said that the last donations will be given out on May 19.
“This will be the usual parcels of staple goods such as, rice, pasta, oil, cereal, canned goods and so on. We also give fresh bread every morning which has been supplied by Zorbas and Protea bakery. Perhaps we could continue to do this and give clothes from another location, I don’t know,” she said.
Sofokleous said that the 2000 euros a month running costs include 300 euros rent for the Solidarity house, where the Paphos charity is based, electricity, water, petrol and the purchase of basic necessities. He said that this is all on top of donations of food, money, clothes and other items, which are given on a regular basis by companies and the public.
According to the spokesman from the municipality’s social welfare grocery, the economic situation had improved so much that some recipients of aid could no longer be considered needy.
“To be honest, some of these people are not really in need. You see them with new handbags or their nails done, and that was not what the grocery was set up for. We are going through all of their applications for assistance now, with the [labour] ministry, and are being very strict. Those who meet the criteria will be given coupons instead of food. We are working on this currently and hope to have the scheme ready by the end of the month,” he said.
But some volunteers and supporters of Solidarity say it makes no sense to close its doors, arguing there are still many people living on or below the poverty line.
One concerned volunteer, who wished to remain unnamed, told the Sunday Mail that even those entitled to help from the government are suffering and the money just isn’t enough.
“Even if the government is providing help, it isn’t enough for people to survive. They can’t pay rent and bills and feed themselves and their children on the small amount they are allowed,” he said.
“I am very concerned as to what will happen to all these families who are relying on Solidarity. How will they react when they are told that this is the last time they can get food from us? They can’t magic food out of thin air and on to their tables. This is soul destroying, and I don’t understand what is going on here. There is still a need.”
Sofokleous said that every village in Cyprus has always had a few families in need and for these cases the local communities themselves had been able to help.
The Paphos councillor also said that the Paphos centre for volunteers – ESEP – are also able to step in and help where needed. However, ESEP informed the Sunday Mail that they only hand out food parcels twice a year, at Christmas and Easter.
Volunteers say they are concerned that severing help could lead to homelessness, people sleeping rough on the streets, malnutrition and even death. “I can’t sleep at night worrying what will happen to these people,” said the volunteer.
Some supporters of Solidarity say they are even considering setting up a separate charity.
“We can’t just turn our backs on these people, just because the European cultural capital [Pafos 2017] is on the way and we can’t be ‘seen’ to have poor families living here. A lot of these people are Europeans, what message does that send?”
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