Homelessness in Greece and the Role of Counseling Psychologists


The present experiential qualitative study explored the lived experiences of “neo-homeless” people at a municipal shelter in Athens. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with 6 participants (4 women and 2 men) who were rendered homeless as a result of the prolonged economic crisis in Greece. Thematic analysis was employed to analyze the research material. Participant accounts revolved around the perceived negative effects of neo-homelessness such as detrimental personal consequences, stress, feelings of sadness and depression, depersonalization, a sense of hopelessness and lack of hope for the future. However, the participants speaking also about positive growth, a deeper apprehension of life’s meanings, and the mobilization of personal and interpersonal resources. Implications for the work of counselors are discussed in terms of working towards empowering persons in homeless trajectories towards resilience in mental health, taking a stance of social justice.

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Issari, P. , Kesisoglou, G. and Gouliami, Z. (2022) Homelessness in Greece and the Role of Counseling Psychologists. Psychology, 13, 286-300. doi: 10.4236/psych.2022.132017.

1. Introduction

1.1. Precarity, Austerity Measures and Homelessness

The purpose of this experiential qualitative study was to explore the lived experiences of “neo-homeless” people in Athens. The economic crisis and austerity policies led to a social crisis in Greece (2009-2018), and the appearance of a novel group amidst the homeless Greeks. This group has been described as “neo-homeless” and consists mainly of homeless people who used to have a satisfactory standard of living; who had acquired high/higher educational level (1 out of 5 “neo-homeless” persons); who were self-employed or their former occupation was commonly in the technical, construction, or tourism and related sectors. People in this category found themselves homeless due to financial difficulties and unemployment (Arapoglou & Gounis, 2014, 2015; Theodorikakou et al., 2012).

In the midst of austerity of fiscal policies, adapting the European typology of homelessness and housing exclusion (ETHOS)—developed by FEANTSA—(rooflessness, houselessness living in insecure housing, living in inadequate housing), Arapoglou & Gounis (2014) documented the significant rise in visible homelessness and the excessive magnitude of hidden poverty, housing inadequacy and insecurity. As defined by Eurostat, during 2013, in a metropolis of 3.8 million people, 305,000 Greek and 209,000 foreign nationals, residing in (often insecure and inadequate) private rented accommodation, were at risk of poverty and social exclusion. Moreover, a total of 17,800 people were estimated to have been in the ETHOS categories of rooflessness and houselessness in the wider metropolitan area of Athens. Compared to statistics from the last decade (Arapoglou, 2004; Sapounakis, 2004), these numbers indicated a rise for all the ETHOS categories of homelessness. Most significantly, the total of 514,000 of those in insecure and inadequate housing had doubled since the early years of the millennia (Arapoglou et al., 2015). The same authors argued that the demographic profile of the serviced population had changed and included more Greeks, because the dramatic rise in housing insecurity due to unemployment was also coupled with the loss of insurance coverage and income. Those findings and the characteristics of a “neo-homeless group” in the municipality of Athens were corroborated by a street-work survey by Valvis et al. (Georgiopoulou, 2016).

Specht (2010) connected the issue of homelessness with the concept of precarity, which has become prominent in academic debate and documentation worldwide, referring to the flexibilization of the work contract and the proliferation of possible employment relations (e.g., Gallie & Paugam, 2002; Letourneux, 1998; Rodgers & Rodgers, 1989; Standing, 2011, 2014). Precarity has been defined as: “a cumulative combination of atypical employment contracts, limited social benefits, poor statutory entitlements, job insecurity, short tenure and low wages” (Lewchuk et al., 2003: p. 23). As noted by Specht (2010), (European) societies are moving from a two-thirds society to a one-third society, where one-third is well-off with increasing well-being or wealth, another third is gradually descending into situations of social insecurity, and the final third is already in a precarious position or experiencing poverty. Drawing on Castel (1995), he further named three zones of employment as processes dividing society: the integration zone, the precarity zone and the exclusion zone. While the integration zone corresponds to the socially secure one-third, the precarity zone is characterized by precarious or unstable employment relationships, little opportunity to access social resources; consequently creating a danger of social exclusion. The precarity zone lies between prosperity and poverty, constituting an intermediate realm made up of diverse situations (Specht, 2010: p. 220). The exclusion zone is associated with a perpetual uncertainty of employment. The situation is characterized by under-employment, unemployment or long-term unemployment, and the degree of both social integration and social inclusion is accordingly low. Exclusion and poverty occupy this area, albeit to different degrees (p. 221).

Greek publications on precarious employment relations attested to those theorizations by estimating that 40% of the Greek population had worked in precarious labor/bad jobs (e.g., Mouriki, 2010). In addition, Kapsalis (2015) argued that in the years 2010-2014, undeclared labor as formally estimated by the officially appointed control authorities started from 29.7% in 2010, to skyrocket to 40.5% by 2013 and eventually decline to 25% by 2014. According to the Labour Force Survey, the unemployment rate reached up to 22% in 2011, increasing to 25% in 2012 and continued to go up to 27.2% in January 2013 until its decrease to 24% in the last quarter of 2015 (INE-GSEE, 2016).

1.2. The Emergency Government of Neo-Homelessness

Flexible and precarious employment patterns in the Greek labor market, maximized employees’ vulnerability, while swelling the zones of precarity and exclusion (by approximately 514,000 persons) leading to the diverse conditions of homelessness (Arapoglou et al., 2015). It is evident that such a number in the metropolitan area of Athens, during times of crisis, raised demands that could barely be met, by the existing funded shelters. In this context, a whole circuit of agencies and services for the homeless were generated in emergency conditions, drawing on limited, inadequate or inappropriate resources (Arapoglou et al., 2015). Persons in homeless trajectories had to compete for social support and shelterization, in out of sight, “specialized” ad hoc facilities; or they could be entrepreneurial and in good order according to workfare principles, to be (endlessly) “shaped” for re-integration (i.e., through training programmes for non-existent employment opportunities). Such an emergency regime of governmentality (Dardot & Laval, 2014; Foucault, 2008) of the homeless is perpetually ad-hoc, short-lived, always in a “zone of experimentation” (Peck, 2011), existing short-sightedly in relation to the provision of funding (Hopper & Bauohl, 1994). Hence, the emergency-minded orientation of institutional responses, whether public or private (e.g., NGOs), renders both providers and “clients”, the servers and the served, unable or unwilling to consider pathways to exiting homelessness other than a gradual trajectory along a continuum of care that aims to build “housing-readiness” (Arapoglou & Gounis, 2015; Ziomas et al., 2019). Such institutional responses can actually be limited to a narrow range of available options of policy change, while tight fiscal constraints thwart the development of integrated anti-homelessness strategies.

1.3. The Psychological Impact of Homelessness

Rooflessness and houselessness have been described as detrimental, traumatic experiences, which isolate the affected person. Their negative psychological impact is due to feelings of stress, stigmatization, feeling left-out, low self-esteem and the poor quality of interpersonal relationships owing to this experience (Renedo & Jovchelovitch, 2007; Shelter, 2007). Roofless persons seem to neglect themselves and to be overcome by feelings of impotence and despair (Crane, 1999; Snow & Anderson, 1987). Moreover, according to Bhurga (2007), even people with no previous mental health history can express grave psychological stress during the period of rooflessness. Williams & Stickley (2010), in a narrative study with eight roofless persons, highlighted the shattered identities of their participants, due to social discrimination. Their self-esteem and psychological well-being were negatively impacted by social exclusion, harboring feelings of rejection, impotence, oppression, alienation and lack of hope for the future. Similarly, in a qualitative study of young people, Riggs & Coyle (2002) found that the experience of homelessness can undermine achieving and/or maintaining a sense of self-esteem, coherence and self-efficacy. In order to face up to the threats of their identity, young people mobilized intra-personal and intra-group coping mechanisms, such as temporary denial or self-alignment, while also seeking the support of intra-group others in an effort to achieve a change in their identity state. Taylor’s (1993) research, involving qualitative interviews with ten homeless women also demonstrated that participants shared experiences of depersonalization and stigmatization which affected their personalities. It was found that being or seeming “dirty”, while having an identity without verification (state documents) was detrimentally impacting their sense of self-esteem and identity. In another study involving older-aged men living in a temporary shelter, the participants linked the identity threat to losing their autonomy. Moreover, the threat to their autonomy was felt as equally fearsome as the threat to their corporeal integrity (Holt et al., 2011). In Davies’s (2012) study, asides from the negative impact of homelessness, participants mentioned a positive side as well; they described stories of psychological resilience and their struggles, in order to change their condition. They also stressed achieving a personal recovery and re-adjusting their objectives, by marking the beginning of a new life, full of hope and opportunities. Another study that underlined psychological resilience among homeless women suffering from PTSD was that of Stump & Smith (2008).

1.4. Study Objective

The present study adopted a qualitative experiential approach to exploring the “neo-homeless” peoples’ experiences aiming at enriching existing literature by offering insights from the perspective of individuals who were rendered homeless as a result of the prolonged economic crisis in Greece. Although the literature has highlighted the notion of neo-homelessness in Greece (Arapoglou & Gounis, 2015; Theodorikakou et al., 2012), little is known about the lived experiences and subjective perceptions of neo-homeless people themselves.

2. Methods

2.1. Participants

The study took place at a municipal shelter in Athens which contextualized the neo-homelessness issues people faced at the times of economic crisis. The sample was purposive (Ritchie et al., 2003) and relatively homogeneous. Participants were of Greek nationality and neo-homeless as a result of the prolonged economic adversities in Greece; there were four women (Myrto, Katia, Vassiliki and Athena), and two men (Kostas and Stamatis). The names used here are fictional to safeguard the anonymity of the participants. The age range was 52 - 62 years old and most of them had stayed at the shelter for a short period by the time the interviews were conducted; only Katia had been homeless for more than 2.5 years. In Table 1, there is a presentation of information on their particular age, time of homelessness, time in the shelter, family status, employment status and previous occupation.

2.2. Data Collection

The six semi-structured interviews were conducted at the municipal shelter by the third author of the study, who was also employed as a counselor there, a factor that aided the interaction, establishing a level of trust on the part of the participants. Written consent was obtained, and all participants were given detailed information about the research, issues of confidentiality, anonymity and data protection as well as their right to withdraw their consent for participation at any point during the course of the study. Interview questions were framed in an open way and explored participant accounts and experiences of homelessness, including their life in the shelter and the different coping mechanisms they mobilized. The questions were used to guide rather than dictate the course of the interview (Issari & Pourkos, 2015). Participants were treated as experiential experts, and any novel areas of inquiry they opened up were followed. Data collection lasted approximately 2 weeks. The interviews were recorded onto a mini-disk recorder and all interviews were transcribed verbatim using a simplified form of transcription.

2.3. Data Analysis

Thematic analysis was conducted to identify, analyze and report patterns of meaning (Braun & Clarke, 2006). For the analysis of the interviews we adopted an inductive (“bottom up”) approach in order for themes to be driven by the

Table 1. Participants.

data (Issari & Pourkos, 2015). However, we cannot assert a purely inductive approach as the analysis was also informed by the framework of the Greek economic crisis. Following the six phases in the Braun & Clarke (2006), we first read and re-read the interviews to become familiar with their content, and then we coded the data generating succinct codes, next we generated sub-themes and grouped them into themes, reviewed the themes in relation to the entire data and gave names and defined the themes. Last we proceeded to write up the results.

3. Research Findings

3.1. Accounts and Perceived Effects of “Neo-Homelessness”

Participants’ accounts attested to an increase of homelessness and pauperism in the context of the economic crisis and underlined the negative and detrimental effects that the sudden decline of social status had on the lives of “neo-homeless” people.

In the past, we can say these groups were a little more excluded, but now I see, since I have such an experience, that it is more widespreadjust like in the food rations before used to go, say, junkies or people we said were nuts. Not any more, now all of a sudden all kinds of people go (Kostas, 52 years old man).

Well, yes, thats it, we were living there and we were middle class, we lived, according to the middle class, say All of a sudden we ended up on the streets, completely. Completely, in debt, without a future (Vassiliki, 58 years old woman).

Life nevertheless has been pretty much ruined. It is ruined. They have turned our lives into shreds… (Stamatis, 62 years old man).

Kostas pointed out how people—even family—find it hard to deal with people who find themselves homeless.

Maybe, this is what scares people the most, to face this situation. Hence, it drives you away, not as Kostas, it drives you away as an incident, lets say. This is how I have felt it, both times, people do not want this incident. […] Like my children or my ex wife, they havent come here, you know what it is not that, just that they are bored with it, I believe that they do not want it, to see it (52 years old man).

On the other hand, and in contrast to other informants and studies documenting the ways general population treats the homeless (Baldwin et al., 1997; Bentley, 1997), Stamatis was positively treated with emotional warmth and care by the community when he was roofless:

When I was living there one woman came at 3 oclock at night, it was shuddering cold, to give me a warmer coat. Everybodythey came every daychildren were crying, women were crying, becauseyes. Lots of love, they were crying. God bless those people (62 years old man).

3.2. Psychological Effects of “Neo-Homelessness”

Neo-homeless informants mentioned also feeling anxious, sad, depressed, experiencing lack of hope and of self-worth. Living a life in the zone of precarity, they faced multiple stress factors such as long-term unemployment, searching for work in vain, massive debt, and so on. One telling instance comes from Athena who connected her feelings of stress and tension with her urgency and difficulties to find a job.

So, thats my reality. I have terrible stress, extreme hypertension in order to be able to find a job Wherever friends and acquaintances tell me to go, I hurry there… (55 years old woman).

Similarly, Katia, Myrto and Vassiliki connected searching for work in vain and long-term unemployment’ with feelings of depression, worthliness, and lack of hope (Bhurga, 2007; Renedo & Jovchelovitch, 2007; Shelter, 2007):

Then I exhausted the opportunities from friends, acquaintances, relatives, I didnt get a chance to find a job, to be able to stand on my own two feet, this depressed me, psychologically, very, very muchI felt worthless, that there was no reason to live, what am I doing here, being a parasite? (Katia, 52 years old woman).

Myself personally the nights when I fall and sleep I am cryingmy heart is shut and darkenedbecause I dont see a light… (Myrto, 57 years old female).

Thats it, in short we are completely destroyed. I mean we dont have hope in life for anything anymore. Personally I have no hope that anything will change… (Vassiliki, 58 years old woman)

Similarly, Myrto, living in the zone of exclusion felt useless and incompetent. Nevertheless, she attributed the blame for her condition to an “indefinite” “they”. It was a rhetorical move indicating a certain conscientization (Freire, 2006) about the socio-economic reality and its effects upon her life.

I feel useless, I feelincompetent and it is not ehhhmy choice to feel like this, they made me this way They led me to this point even though I am a very strong woman… (58 years old woman).

Likewise, Athena characterized the economic crisis and its detrimental effects for people “a disgrace”, an opinion shared by many other Greeks as she emphatically pointed out:

This thing has ended up being a disgrace”, those things that I say now are not my words. I have discussed them with at least 3 million Greeks (exaggerated tone) and I would not like to tell you the opinion of many others which is worse than mine (55 years old woman).

In all, participants in our study seemed to be conscious of the relationship between the psychological and the socio-political and its effects upon people’s well-being—what Prilleltensky & Fox (2007) have described as psycho-political literacy.

3.3. Experiences in the Shelter System

3.3.1. Lack of Privacy

Losing their home, participants had to live in a shelter and to share the living space with other men and women. This lack of privacy put a lot of pressure upon them and was experienced as a form of oppression. As noted by Katia,

This thing with privacy. I have to dress in front of all the women, who at times leave the door open. Not giving a dime, it is an oppression (52 years old woman).

Along these lines, Vassiliki seemed appreciative of the times she used to have a house.

Happy are those who have houses, but we dont appreciate it because we take it for granted. Only if you lose it, do you appreciate it (58 years old woman).

3.3.2. Sharing and Sense of “Family”

On another hand, sharing the daily chores, communicating over trivial matters, developing friendships, discussing over current issues of society and politics were facilitated in the shared life of the shelters. Thus, co-habitation was also viewed in a positive light, especially as the communal prevents from the loneliness of homelessness. Kostas stressed the importance of communication over the shared ordeal of unemployment and “neo-homelessness”.

Not with everyone, but with most I can find topics of discussion, yes, …on the topic of unemployment or on how their life has got here. With some persons I can identify with, with others I cannot (52 years old man).

Just like Kostas, Myrto distinguished between people in the shelter she can hang around with and communicate, and others that she can’t. It is a matter of “fitting together” with some to share the experiences of hardship and “inner troubles”. Then, the “homily” sensation of a “big family” is felt.

I am waiting to see a couple of persons that I have chosen to hang around more with, because we fit nicely together as human beings. We will speak for one or two hours and we will share our inner troubles… [.] That is, I am living like in a house where we are a very big family and I feel that I am at home and I have around my children, who adore me… (57 years old woman).

3.3.3. Participants’ Experiences with the Shelter Staff

In the context of the shelter, the staff were also are very important. Most of the participants praised the social services’ staff, and appreciated their humane qualities such as genuine interest, personal warmth, kindness and respect. Such qualities provided the much needed personal support and promoted the communication among the co-habitants. Kostas stressed being able to reach the staff and feeling warmth in that communication.

Basically, for me, it is good that you can talk with any member of the staff if you need it I saw interest and felt warmth… (52 years old man).

Athena emphasized the staff’s politeness and respect towards the shelters’ inhabitants.

Ehhm, being here now, I am very pleased by this building. Most of all by the staff. Everybody is special, both boys and girls here. They are very polite, very respectful… (55 years old woman).

In all participants’ experiences in the shelter, even though difficult at times, were positive to a great extent as they received support by the staff and other co-habitants, shared their troubles and became conscious of how the wider socio-economic crisis had deteriorated their lives. According to Cockersell (2014), the everyday magic of normative relationships is the key to mental health and resilience. This process of support, conscientization and sharing in the shelter system was aided by the search and mobilization of personal coping resources. This will form the core of the next thematic section of findings.

4. The Mobilization of Personal and Interpersonal Resources

Although neo-homeless participants discussed in length distressful feelings and experiences, they also spoke about benefits & personal growth. Most of the participants related finding empowerment through mobilizing various personal, interpersonal and social resources. For instance, Stamatis and Myrto attested their faith in God and how it provided the “strength” needed in order to survive the distress of homelessness and shelter-living.

God does not leave anyone behind my girl. Does not leave anyone behind (62 years old man).

Only God is giving me strength, there is no one that will give me strength (57 years old woman).

On a more social level, Katia seemed to resist the distress of homelessness and to find strength in becoming active as a volunteer in the solidarity initiatives of the municipal social service. She seemed to have reached a conscientization as a citizen through hard times, and stressed how time had come for people to learn to take action in solidarity “for the greater good”, emphasizing social bonds and a sense of co-existence.

People at last learn how to exhibit solidarity and volunteer. No one owes nobody anything, but all together we can all dofor the greater good (52 years old woman).

For Kostas, despite the hard times of co-habitation, communicating with others in the shelter gave him strength and empowered him to do something better in the future…

OK, sometimes I am not in good terms with people, but they nevertheless give me strength. Even here, if I do not shut myself in and accept itYes, I see the benefits. I definitely benefit myself, to be able to do something better, say. This gives me strength to do something better.

Myrto and Athena highlighted the importance of hope in dealing with life’s hardships.

But I persist on hoping. And I will do that until I die (57 years old woman).

A job could be a change, to find a job, to work and be able to stand on our own feet, like we were before. I have this hope and I think that with a little search and a little effort it will be done. It will be done (55 years old woman).

On a similar note, Athena also stressed that life itself empowers us to cope with everyday struggle and to “go on”, against hardship and death.

Life itself. Look, if we had given up, we would be dead by now. Life itself empowers you to go on.

Overall, participants’ accounts reflected the detrimental effects of neo-homelessness on the lives of people but also aspects of resilience, empowerment, positive personal growth as well as conscientization (Freire, 2006), that is a critical awareness of their social reality in the zones of exclusion. Such insights in the current Greek context agree with earlier studies by Stump & Smith (2008) as well as by Montgomery (1994).

5. Discussion and Implications for Counseling

This experiential qualitative study opened up many issues for reflection and discussion. On the one hand, it illustrated how the oppression of neo-homelessness was conducive to anxiety, depression and trauma for the participants, a finding in accordance with the relevant literature (e.g., Bhurga, 2007; Renedo & Jovchelovitch, 2007; Shelter, 2007). On the other hand, participant narratives advanced the idea that although offsetting at times, communal living in the shelters (Holt et al., 2011) is crucial for the mobilization and even for the creation of resilience. This takes place, in particular, through the establishment of social bonds when having to learn to share the space and the resources, while depending on the support and the role of the staff. As Masten (2001) noted, resilience comes out of the normative human resources in the minds, brains and bodies of the people, in the surrounding contexts of families, personal relationships and communities.

Having documented the distressful and damaging effects of neo-homelessness, it is crucial to critically reflect upon the role and ad-hoc positioning of counseling psychologists employed precariously in the shelter system. As Harper (2014) noted, if we consider people who are homeless in the context of our social and material world, our discipline may turn towards the idea that our contexts can both inhibit and promote agency. The ad-hoc shelters, as contexts of life, are parts of the “homelessness industry” (Arapoglou et al., 2015), which, in an emergency “zone of experimentation” (Peck, 2011), govern the livelihoods of persons in homeless trajectories. Such a regime of governmentality is effected through the personnel of the shelter, notwithstanding the counseling psychologists, social workers, nurses and other support staff. The role of the staff, according to Arapoglou & Gounis (2015), consists of an endless effort to build “housing readiness”, to better “shape” the served persons in good order for re-integration in the labor market, according to workfare principles. Such an institutional provision of individualized services could impose additional impediments to the change and resilience of homeless persons. Harper (2014) advanced the idea that the discipline itself of (counseling) psychology is often individualizing distress, because it is ipso facto interested in individuals. It is thus important to reflect on how we can make our services and settings promote the personal and communal agency to prevent the practices of exclusion that have become an ordinary, which has been taken for granted part of life for people who are homeless. Hence, counseling psychologists should be more inclined to attend to issues of collective “responsibility” or “agency” and as a discipline to work at a macro level (Harper, 2016). This calls for novel practices of working towards empowering persons in homeless trajectories towards resilience in mental health, and visibility taking a stance of social justice (Elliot, 2014).

Even though Riggs & Coyle (2002) have demonstrated that the premises of humanistic psychology of empathy, warmth and unconditional positive regard are indispensable for the counselor working with people in homeless trajectories, in order to listen to their histories of oppression and distress, and to support their strengths, Toporek et al. (2006) promoted also the transformation of the counselor to a social justice agent, where the counselor role becomes manifold: one aims to advocate for socially excluded groups through activist action and publication of information, to work on social outreach and provision of information on sources of aid, to build and further alliances with agencies and NGOs, to facilitate self-help groups, while enabling human potential, resilience and personal growth. Along these lines, the perspective of Emancipatory Communitarianism provides a three-phase process for communitarian group counseling for homeless persons (Brubaker et al., 2010). The first phase aims to build empowerment by deconstructing their personal histories of oppression, fostering critical consciousness. As people tell their stories, they may begin to free themselves from internalized oppression and begin to understand how society has oppressed them (Martín-Baró, 1994). The second phase entails group work of problematization (Freire, 2006), with the objective of taking responsibility for choices in the present, thus initiating a critical evaluation and a movement towards responsible change. The third phase aims to translate the personal responsibility to communal responsibility, through art and social action interventions, once as members support one another, giving to others extends beyond the group and into the wider community (Brubaker et al., 2010). Harper (2016), advocated a similar, community psychology perspective for psychosocial distress, invoking Holmes’s (2010) “Psychology in the Real World” project, where people learnt how to cope with individual problems but then moved on to exploring the roots of their problems, subsequently taking action to transform local communities and aspects of national and international policy that are “the causes of the causes” of distress. In such a framework, the counselor may also use participatory action research methods (Prilleltensky & Fox, 2007; Weis & Fine, 2004) for the documentation of the group-work and the empowerment efforts of people in homeless trajectories undertake.

It is important to note that as with much qualitative research no claims can be made about the probabilistic generalizability of these findings to a larger population. The qualitative inquiry aims mostly for transferability of findings from group to group and contribution to the existing professional knowledge (Smith 2018). It should be considered that the sample consisted of neo-homeless people living in a shelter and their experiences might be different from homeless people living in the streets and not in contact with services for homeless people. Moreover, the heterogeneity of neo-homeless people cannot be represented by a sample of six people We hope that other researchers will explore similar issues with different groups of homeless people in order to gain a greater understanding of the complex challenges they face, and to inform counseling psychology practice.


The authors (P.I., G.K., and Z.G.) would like to thank all the participants who volunteered to share their experiences with them.

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflicts of interest.


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