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TALLINN - The entrance to Tallinn’s homeless shelter is full of baby carriages, a testimony to the destitution the recession wreaked on young families in Estonia, a Baltic EU state set to join the eurozone on Jan. 1 amid biting austerity cuts, reports AFP. The shelter, though, is cosy and clean and the staff friendly, but most residents, including 32-year-old Veronika, dream of having a family home again.
“I never imagined I would end up living in a homeless shelter, but here we are now, hoping my husband will get a job finally and we will somehow manage to get back to normal life,” Veronika, a mother of four children aged 1-14, said.
Seduced by easy credit during the economic boom that followed Estonia’s 2004 EU entry, the couple drowned in debt when the global economic crisis slammed Estonia’s export-driven economy in 2008 and Veronika’s husband, a builder, lost his job as the construction market crashed.
The recession saw the economy of the nation of 1.3 million people contract by 14.1 percent in 2009, causing joblessness to spike to nearly 20 percent this year.
“To refinance the debt, we then took a new loan from a bank in the name of a friend who wished to help us, but when our hope to get a job failed again and we had to sell our two-room flat and ended up without a home, or a salary to rent a flat,” Veronika said. Veronika’s family of six now relies on a food bank and a monthly state benefit of around 200 euros to survive and must spend 91 euros to pay for accommodation at the homeless shelter.
“While some of our residents have fallen rather low and have problems with alcohol and drugs, the recession has also brought us people like Veronika and her family,” explained social worker Maia-Reet Ehandi, who is in charge of the shelter’s fourth floor, reserved for families.
“We help them cope and all of us hope they will find a way to get a job and a home again,” Ehandi says.
With her husband still unable to find work, Veronika is hoping to enter the job market herself when their youngest child is a little older. “Our big dream is to get a municipal flat and to have enough money to pay the rent. There is a slight chance my husband will get a job as a security guard in a company,” she sighed.
“We can offer families like Veronika’s a place to live during hard times, but all normal people dream about returning to a normal life,” says Ehandi. “Hundreds of people are on the waiting list for our shelter, but it can only accommodate 220 people. Many people living here are in line for a flat built and rented by the Tallinn municipality,” she added.
With Estonia’s central bank forecasting 2.5 percent economic growth this year compared to last, and 4.2 percent in 2011, the job market is likely to improve over time. But employment will remain precarious in the foreseeable future. “Some people who managed to get a job and municipal flat became homeless a second time after they lost their job again and failed to pay up their rent to the city,” Ehandi explained. She added that energy efficient public housing, instead of the existing draughty “old wooden houses,” would help curb high heating costs for low income families through Estonia’s bitterly cold winters. But spending on new public housing is unlikely to come soon.
Estonia is set to become the eurozone’s leading example of fiscal austerity when it adopts the euro currency on Jan. 1, 2011. It boasts the lowest public debt in the entire 27-member EU, predicted to reach just eight percent of GDP this year compared to the double digit figures chalked up by some debt-ridden eurozone members.