It took the death of a 45-year-old homeless woman in Limassol for many in Cyprus to wake up to the cold reality that hundreds are sleeping rough on the streets.

A phenomenon largely unheard of up until the country’s very recent history, homelessness was something that happened ‘in other countries.’

The death of the woman, a Russian national whose name has not been shared by authorities, brought to light many of Cyprus’ darker secrets: people sleeping at cemeteries, in abandoned houses, park benches and seafronts.

Deputy Minister of Social Welfare Marilena Evangelou told the Cyprus Mail “people are facing a variety of problems such as economic hardship, family and other social issues.”

This is evidently having severe consequences, as stakeholders shared the numbers keep getting worse.

“The challenges are numerous – economic, social, psychological.”

Though Evangelou is quick to say the issue in Cyprus is nowhere near as bad as other EU states, the numbers tell a story of their own.

Figures show people have been seeking help in the hundreds, but the reality on the ground is far worse. Not everyone knows where to turn for help. And many are still too proud to ask.

Limassol worse hit

The statistics for 2023 have not been finalised yet but the first six months had 137 cases across the country. Worse hit was Limassol, the city of overpriced rents and unaffordable homes. It had 58 known cases.

Nicosia had 40, Paphos 32, Famagusta four and Larnaca had three.

“We can offer shelter for a few nights, but after that it’s very difficult,” said Christina Chambarta, who coordinates Limassol’s Sxedia centre.

The centre aims to support homeless people, and said in 2022, Limassol had 190 homeless persons

Chambarta underlines there are many that authorities do not know about and so the figure is undoubtedly worse but stresses the situation has gotten worse in the past few years.

Dangerous living

Many of the cases they see concern locals who have been unable to make ends meet, particularly in Limassol, which holds the crown of unaffordable rents, she says.

There are also situations of asylum seekers who have faced rejection from landlords for a home, or others who have to live and work in different cities and so make do with whatever they can find.

“Finding a home in Limassol is very difficult.”

She highlights that although the centre tries to have a network of people including those who can offer rentals, “collaboration with the private sector is even harder now than it used to be.

“The rent is just unaffordable.”

‘Things will get worse’

Limassol MP with Akel Costas Costa warns the figures are “only the tip of the iceberg.”

Many citizens are feeling the pressure of the cost-of-living crisis and landlords are pushing to increase rents, making it all the more difficult for the public.

“They are bullying people to leave.”

He says people have been sleeping on benches, particularly near Limassol’s molos area, but also cemeteries.

According to Chambarta homeless individuals most often seek out abandoned property for shelter “but this is also very dangerous.”

Beyond the lack of sanitary conditions, “they may try to light a fire which gets out of control and puts them at risk.”

Costa however fears with looming foreclosures “very soon, things will get worse.”

Racist attacks

Evangelou stresses that despite the challenges, “there is no scenario in which the government would leave a person on the streets, provided it is informed of such a circumstance.”

Chambarta reiterates the point but warns the public not to take pictures and post them of Facebook as so often happens.

“People may mean well but there are dangerous individuals who want to take advantage of the vulnerability of the homeless people.”

This could range from exploiting them, stealing their personal belongings and even racist attacks which have been observed in the past.

“The public can contact us, the social services or police. This is the safest option.”

No homeless shelter

Last Saturday, it was another homeless man that found the 45-year-old woman dead. Asked whether he had received or been offered help, Evangelou said she could not share that information, citing personal data.

She did say the woman had been offered help in the past but had refused it, bringing to light the mental health issues that many on the streets face.

“It is a challenge and we try our best to offer psychosocial support,” Chambarta underlines, with the focus on helping people re-integrate into society.

According to Evagelou, although Cyprus’ homelessness situation is not as severe as EU states, the country “does face a limited challenge concerning temporary housing.”

Centres like Sxedia can offer a few nights of stay, and perhaps the state can pay for accommodation for a few nights but there is no long-term plan at the moment.

Costa also highlights that with many social welfare applications taking months to process “by the time people get money they may already be out on the street. It affects people you wouldn’t think.”

Sxedia centre can be reached at 25347878 and social services at 22406709. Police can be contacted at 112.