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ATHENS (Reuters) - After 18 years cooking moussaka and roast lamb in restaurants around Greece, Petros Papadopoulos prepares lunch for 50 in a place he never expected to end up -- as a resident of a homeless shelter in Athens.
The soft-spoken chef, who admits he is not giving his real name for fear his friends and relatives will find out about his situation, had just bought a flat and was hoping to start a family when his dream was crushed by Greece's economic crisis.
In 2010, he lost his job to Greece's worst recession in decades and joined the ranks of tens of thousands of unemployed. When he could no longer afford his mortgage, he lost his home and was forced to roam the streets.
"I felt like I was living in a movie. My life changed 180 degrees. I was lost," Papadopoulos said, wringing his hands as he recalls how he struggled to find a sleeping place in an abandoned building. "The street is unbearable."
Officials say the number of homeless in Greece has increased about 20-25 percent in two years, a staggering rise in a country where adult children often live with their parents and pensions traditionally go to supporting young families.
It's a statistic that resonates across many European countries laid low by the one-two punch of recession and austerity, as rising unemployment, shortages of affordable housing and social benefit cuts push more people over the edge and affect people who thought they were immune.
The clean-cut Papadopoulos, 40, shakes his head in disbelief at the year he spent sleeping rough before finding a bed in the shelter. His two brothers -- his only close family -- were too hard hit by the crisis themselves to be able to help him for long.
"I never thought this could happen to me. I later realised how thin the line is," Papadopoulos said. "It can happen to anyone. We are all potentially homeless."
In contrast to the old cliche of the dishevelled homeless man with mental health or drug problems, Papadopoulos is part of a new generation of Greeks who have fallen victim to the benefit cuts meant to stave off the country's deep debt crisis.
"The population of the homeless has changed," said Aris Violantzis, a psychologist at the Klimaka NGO. "It's usually middle-aged people, in their productive years, who thought everything was going fine and they did the right things.
"They feel cheated," he added.
At the Klimaka shelter, about 50 people, most of them men, chatted, played backgammon or watched TV while waiting for the meal of pasta and meat that Papadopoulos cooked to be served on plastic plates.
The first to knock on the shelter's door were those who used to work in the sectors hardest hit by the recession, such as construction. Lambros, a former plasterer, has not told relatives that he slept in his car for three months after he was fired last Christmas, before finding a bed at the shelter.
"I don't want them to know," the 55-year-old said with tears in his eyes. "I would feel bad, and so would they."
Poverty has visibly increased on the streets of the capital of four million, where people huddle in sleeping bags in empty alleys and can be seen rummaging through garbage containers, looking for food or scraps of metal or glass to sell.
Klimaka estimated the population living on the streets in Greece has increased by 25 percent to 17,000-20,000 over the past two years. The Athens municipality service for the homeless, where dozens queue every day for a meal, also reported about a rise of about 15-20 percent.
With Greek unemployment now over 16 percent, the new homeless come from all walks of life.
"The family and social solidarity overall are suffering ... I have never seen anything like this before, it is as if each man is on his own," Violantzis said.
Across the Ionian sea in Italy, which is also introducing more austerity to stave off a fiscal crisis, charity workers tell a similar tale for the homeless and say traditional family solidarity there is strained.
"There are more people in the 'grey zone' that are not living in extreme poverty but can't get to the end of the month with the income they have, such as one-parent families and the elderly," said Francesca Zuccari, of Sant Egidio charity.
The country's most active poverty relief group, the Catholic body Caritas, reports a 25 percent increase in those seeking its help between 2009 and 2010 and a 40 percent rise in new cases, the strongest increase in many years. Many are divorced and separated men.
"More people are splitting up and the economic crisis has lowered real incomes, increased unemployment and worsened the housing situation," said Caritas spokesman Renato Molinaro.
Weaker groups such as migrants and youths are especially at risk across Europe, said the European federation of NGOs working with the homeless, FEANTSA.
"There are more and more people who were definitely not in danger of becoming homeless that are actually there now," said Karolina Krzystek, policy officer at FEANTSA. Many of them are unaccounted for, sleeping temporarily on a friend's couch or in over-crowded flats.
In Spain, which has the highest unemployment rate in the European Union at more than 21 percent and imposed stringent belt-tightening measures to avoid having to ask for a euro zone bailout, the number of people in homeless shelters increased 15.7 percent from 2008 to 2010, according to official data.
The issue is not just restricted to countries at the centre of the euro zone's debt crisis.
The number of homeless families in Britain, which is not in the euro zone, rose by 10 percent to 44,160 households in the past year, the first increase since 2004.
The biggest issue in Britain, which embarked on austerity cuts last year, is the lack of affordable housing, a spokeswoman for homelessness charity Shelter said.
"More and more people are being priced out of home ownership and private rents are rising. The cuts to housing benefits are going to put a massive strain on people," she said.
A chronic housing shortage and high unemployment are also contributing to the problem in France -- listed by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development as the most generous welfare state in the world.
The managers of the Abbe Pierre Foundation and social section of the French Red Cross, two of the country's largest associations dealing with homelessness, said the number of homeless people had risen to 130,000-150,000 in early 2011 from just over 100,000 in 2008.
The Red Cross's Didier Piard said there had been a "drastic rise" since 2007 in three categories -- youths falling on hard times soon after leaving home, pensioners with dwindling buying power and asylum-seekers.
"Many of these are people who would never have been on our radar before, who worked continuously throughout their lives," he said. "For the pensioners, all of sudden they find themselves living on tiny amounts, unable to keep up with rising rents, bills and food payments."
Abbe Pierre's General Director, Patrick Doutreligne, said that cuts to social programmes and funding for aid associations were pushing many lower- and middle-income people over the edge into poverty and intermittent homelessness.
"The most striking category of new homeless are pensioners. Just as all their expenses begin to rise, they are struck by a dramatic reduction in their buying power. The result is that a shocking number have to appeal to social services and associations for help with food and housing."
Emergency funding is usually still available to help people get food and a place to sleep but longer-term plans to help reintegrate the homeless back into society have often been scrapped in the name of spending cuts, says FEANTSA's Krzystek.
"People might not be freezing on the street but they don't find permanent lodging either," she said.
"There is the thinking that the homeless are so far away from the mainstream labour market that ... (they) can wait for now in shelters and we'll see when better times come."
In Athens, Papadopoulos knows getting back on track will be tough but he knocks on doors and looks through the job advertisements in the newspaper every day, hoping for the best.
"My plans for a home and a family may have collapsed," he said. "But this is still my dream."
Additional reporting by Nicholas Vinocur in Paris, Gavin Jones and Catherine Hornby in Rome, Peter Griffiths in London and Jonathan Gleave in Madrid; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall