The Criminalization of the Homeless in Hungary

by Kevin James Moore

A homeless shelter in Hungary

Cleared out of bridge underpasses, hiding in underground stations, finding refuge in forests, the homeless people of Budapest feel they are being treated as fugitives on the run. This has FEANSTA, the European Federation of Nation Organizations working with the homeless, expressing concerns over concerted attacks in Hungary. The country is seeking punitive measures against dumpster-diving and street sleeping and FEANTSA foresees this leading to the criminalization of the homeless.

Most of the focus on the growing trend to enforce laws that will lead to the imprisonment of the homeless is falling on the shoulders of István Tarlós, mayor of Budapest. Tarlós has said, “those who believe that all problems would be solved if homeless people were given housing […] are mistaken.”

The Mayor of Budapest believes his city is following the strict regulations set forth by other European nations that include Austria, the United Kingdom, France, Spain, Germany, and Holland. FEANSTA has countered with evidence that even though many European nations apply strict rules for services that grant the homeless funding and support, there are no laws in those countries that threaten significant fines or imprisonment as in Hungary.

Boróka Fehér, Representative of Tizek Társasága, an umbrella organization of Budapest homeless service providers, said that after his election last October Tarlós declared a “Program of Public Reconciliation.”

“Although the program was never fully developed in written form, its most obvious element was the clearing of 13 of busiest inner city underpasses of rough sleepers,” said Fehér. “Without any additional financial support offered, he ordered these underpasses to be cleared, meaning that after a period of 30 days, while outreach workers tried to offer accommodation to the people they had registered as living in those underpasses, the police moved in and sent rough sleepers outside.”

There was no legal framework to back up the clearing out of the underpasses. Some Hungarian human right watch groups and Fehér claimed it to be a violation and felt it was propaganda, as only the underpasses most frequented by tourist were cleared out. Fehér’s main concern was that there was no viable solutions to the homeless that had been displaced and left them to the limited option of moving on to the underpasses that had yet to be raided.

Part of problem is the opaqueness of an amendment passed by the Hungarian Parliament in the autumn of 2010, which defines the functions of public places and allows the municipalities to create a criminal offence for the use of public places if the use is not in line with its functions. Stefánia Kapronczay, of the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, said, “The justification of the amendment revealed the real purpose of it, which is charging homeless people for sleeping in public places and using them “inappropriately”.”

“Before this amendment coming into force the Mayor of Budapest announced his project to clear the inner city of Budapest and terminated the contract with those NGOs involved in services provided for homeless people,” said Kapronczay. “The municipality of Budapest introduced its decree on the non-conform use of public places and defined “residing in public spaces” as a criminal offense. People who live on the public places as a life style or to store their belongings used for living there can be charged with a fine up to 50,000 HUF (216 USD).”

Tarlós confronts these allegations and claims Budapest is in accord with other Western European countries concerning issues of public space rules, homeless rights and regulations. “Even the liberal Netherlands has got more consistent and more explicit rules than Budapest,” said Tarlós.

“I think that the interests of the majority of the citizens of Budapest count more than the opinion of various ill-informed organizations who are not aware of the real situation or who are inaccurately informed.” He added, “They are not responsible for this city, while I am.”

“We only criminalize what is criminal. Homeless people too have to abide by the law and rules of human coexistence,” said Tarlós regarding on how his city treats the homeless.

Tarlós’s evaluation of Budapest’s homeless situation and solutions may be distorted by comparing his tactics against those of other European nations. “I think Tarlós is not aware of what is happening in other European cities,” said Fehér. “Some of his colleagues might have visited a huge shelter in London or Paris, and now think that this is all there is, but it is obviously not the case.”

The homeless shelters in Budapest are overcrowded and dilapidated, according to Fehér. “There are [shelters] where people have to sleep in huge dormitories of 12-20-50 people. There are still some, where there are bugs that bite and carry infections.”

Funding for homeless shelters has been going down in the past few years and many shelters are struggling for survival and don’t have the money to offer more attractive services, according to Fehér. “There is only one service in Budapest offering individual bedrooms, and there are only a few offering double rooms for couples. Their modernization would cost a considerable amount of money.”

In October Tarlós proclaimed that Budapest would open new host sites and shelters for the homeless and would follow through on a proposal passed by the General Assembly of Budapest in August to establish and renovate three shelters in the city’s 4th, 1st, and 8th districts.

“It is true that we build and establish new homeless shelters. We provide hundreds of millions for this,” said Tarlós. “Furthermore, we also provide working opportunities for the homeless through our public service companies who are already employing more than 400 homeless people.”

The mayor’s primary objective is to achieve a state where homeless people can sleep in human conditions and not out in the streets, and provide an opportunity so that the homeless can work, which he believes will promote their integration into society in a significant way.

The widespread affront against the homeless seems to be bottlenecking in Budapest’s notorious 8th district. The 8th district is traditionally the poorest district of the city and heaviest hit by all kinds of social problems. The area has one of the highest rates of unemployment and school dropouts. There also a number of elderly people scraping by on meager pensions.

Máté Kocsis is the mayor of the 8th district, a member of FIDEZ the same political party as Tarlós, and Fehér sarcastically deems him “the party’s expert on homelessness.”

“Máté Kocsis would like to make the district a yuppie one, and is doing all he can to ensure this,” said Fehér. New development projects in the 8th district are leading to the displacement of homeless people, and instead of revitalizing neighborhoods and encouraging a social mix, Kocsis has tried to push poor people out of the center of the district.

The opening of a 24/7 booking center exclusively for the homeless in the 8th district in October has riled many in the community. It has been set up to deliver people who have been caught in the act of rough sleeping, or looking through the contents of a garbage bin, or who are caught smoking or drinking alcohol in a forbidden place. Fehér sees this as hypocritical, “The 8th district has forbidden smoking in certain public places in the district, mostly in the slum areas, while smoking in public is still allowed in the yuppie restaurant district and squares frequented by students.”

The booking center is seen as a tool for penalizing and harassing the homeless. “The booking center is a police station in reality, where police bring people for ‘questioning’ and then either send them away with a warning, or give them a ticket.” Fehér added, “There have been people who were brought in for questioning every single day, as they persisted in sleeping rough. Informally, the police were told to advise homeless people to go and sleep in one of the other districts.”

Recently demonstrations have been held to oppose what people have deemed the unconstitutional and inhumane treatment of the homeless in their city. A group called The City is for All marched in the streets on 17, October to stop a government proposal to increase fines and imprisonment on people who are found residing in public places. Up to a thousand people attended the demonstration, which ended dramatically when hundreds of people lay down on the street in front of the Parliament building, while other activist dressed as police officers tried to drag them off to jail. For the demonstrators, laws that punish the homeless for not having housing are not the solution.

“I think it is shameful that the 8th district has spent much more on its campaign of criminalizing homeless people than what they spend on services for the homeless themselves,” said Fehér.

Fehér believes Budapest can start reversing the trend of targeting the homeless by taking a first step with a minimalist solution that would begin with affordable single unit occupancies. “At the moment there are 300 plus such units in Budapest, and the waiting list is more than a year long, for a small bedroom, with shared kitchen and bathroom facilities.”

Ending homelessness is the only solution for making sure mistreatment does not continue. “We urge the preparation of a strategy on homelessness. Such a strategy shall focus on prevention and provide effective ways out of homelessness,” said Kapronczay. “In our (Hungarian Civil Liberties Union) opinion staying at a shelter can only be considered as temporary solution.”

Meanwhile politicians have welcomed the homeless to shovel snow this winter in order for them to earn some money to rent their own places. “I think it is shameful that young men who have been politicians and worn suits all their lives are running whole districts and evicting or harassing people much older than them who are down on their luck,” said Fehér. “These young men call on the value of honest work, while they have been earning at least 10 times the minimal wage all their lives and have never known what it is like to have no money or not be able to pay the rent.”

Demonstrators will continue to protest the passing of bills that will further lead to the criminalization of the homeless. They march carrying signs that read “Habitat Instead of Prison” and “The Poor are not Criminals.”

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