Hun­gary's home­less fear they are Vik­tor Or­bán's next tar­get

The Guardian Australia - - Politics / World News - Shaun Walker in Bu­dapest

Many coun­tries have strug­gled to deal with the is­sue of home­less­ness but Hun­gary may be the first to put a con­sti­tu­tional ban on liv­ing on the streets. From next week, be­ing home­less in Hun­gary will vi­o­late the con­sti­tu­tion.

Ac­tivists fear the move could be the start of a po­lit­i­cal cam­paign against home­less peo­ple by the rightwing govern­ment of Vik­tor Or­bán, which has pre­vi­ously fo­cused heav­ily on the ap­par­ent threat posed to Hun­gary from refugees and mi­grants.

“The govern­ment has re­alised they can’t play the mi­grant card end­lessly be­cause there are ob­vi­ously no mi­grants in the coun­try. Mi­gra­tion is­sues can still be use­ful for na­tional cam­paigns but for lo­cal is­sues they need a new scape­goat,” said Gá­bor Iványi, a Methodist priest who runs home­less shel­ters in Bu­dapest’s eighth district.

Un­der the new rules, peo­ple “caught” be­ing home­less who refuse to go to shel­ters when prompted by po­lice will face en­rol­ment in a com­pul­sory work pro­gramme or jail. They may also have their be­long­ings con­fis­cated.

The home­less are a vis­i­ble part of Bu­dapest’s ci­tyscape, sleep­ing in parks and un­der­passes. Iványi said the num­ber of beds at shel­ters in the city was inad­e­quate. One of his shel­ters has dozens of sim­ple metal bed-frames crammed into each room. In win­ter, when the 130-bed shel­ter houses up to 300 peo­ple on some nights, yoga mats are spread on the floor.

Many home­less peo­ple say the city’s home­less shel­ters are so poor that they pre­fer to stay on the street.

“They’re full of lice and once you get lice it’s very hard to get rid of them,” said Erik Jeczkel, a 47-year-old who has been home­less for 20 years. He lives on the street, scav­eng­ing for food in bins. “The district po­lice have beaten me up a few times. They put on gloves so they don’t leave any bruises. They try to move you on to the next district, so it’s not their prob­lem any more.”

The Hun­gar­ian govern­ment’s le­gal cru­sade against home­less­ness has been go­ing on al­most since Vik­tor Or­bán be­came prime min­is­ter in 2010. Then, the in­te­rior min­istry made it easier for the city au­thor­i­ties to re­move home­less peo­ple from the streets, but the con­sti­tu­tional court ruled the mea­sure un­con­sti­tu­tional.

In re­sponse, the govern­ment used a trick it has used on mul­ti­ple oc­ca­sions when its le­gal ini­tia­tives have been thwarted: it sim­ply changed the con­sti­tu­tion. An amend­ment made it il­le­gal to sleep rough in the vicin­ity

of cul­tural and other im­por­tant sites, ef­fec­tively mak­ing home­less­ness il­le­gal in large parts of Bu­dapest.

“There are many coun­tries where there are de­bates over crim­i­nal­is­ing home­less­ness, but as far as I know Hun­gary is the only one to deal with it in the con­sti­tu­tion,” said Bálint Miset­ics, a so­ci­ol­o­gist and hous­ing rights ac­tivist.

The pre­vi­ous leg­is­la­tion gave po­lice an autho­ri­sa­tion to move peo­ple on, while the new amend­ment, which comes into force on 15 Oc­to­ber, puts a uni­ver­sal pro­hi­bi­tion on home­less­ness in di­rect phras­ing.

Or­bán’s spokesman Zoltán Kovács said the Hun­gar­ian govern­ment spends more pro­por­tion­ately than many govern­ments in western Europe on home­less­ness, and said it was ab­surd to call the new law heart­less. He pro­vided sta­tis­tics show­ing that the govern­ment’s bud­get for care ser­vices for the home­less was 9.1bn forints (£25m) in 2018, which in­cludes fund­ing for shel­ters run by char­i­ties.

“There’s no such hu­man right that you can live on the street, be­cause the street is for ev­ery­one. So you need at least cer­tain rules,” he said.

How­ever, the lan­guage around home­less­ness in much of the de­bate is dis­tinctly lack­ing in com­pas­sion. “They be­have and act in a way that is dis­turb­ing for other peo­ple and is pol­lut­ing the streets. They make nor­mal use of pub­lic ar­eas im­pos­si­ble and gen­er­ate fear and dis­gust in nor­mal peo­ple,” said the mayor of Bu­dapest’s 10th district, Róbert Kovács, in a re­quest for govern­ment in­ter­ven­tion to tackle his area’s home­less prob­lem.

Iványi, who bap­tised two of Or­bán’s chil­dren but has long since fallen out bit­terly with the prime min­is­ter, ac­cused the govern­ment of tak­ing a wrong-headed ap­proach to the prob­lem: “In most cases home­less­ness is not a choice. It’s as much of a non­sense as crim­i­nal­is­ing be­ing ill.”

Many home­less peo­ple are strug­gling with men­tal health is­sues and ad­dic­tion, but there are many who have fallen be­hind on mort­gage re­pay­ments and found them­selves fall­ing through a flimsy so­cial safety net.

A long-term un­em­ployed home­less per­son re­ceives 22,800 forints (£63) in ben­e­fits per month, while those on a govern­ment spon­sored work pro­gramme re­ceive 54,000 forints, with which it is hard to rent even a room in Bu­dapest.

Ilona Faras, 55, said she had been home­less since the 1990s, some­times liv­ing in shel­ters and some­times on the street. “I have had a num­ber of jobs clean­ing shop­ping cen­tres or cafes but when I have money I’ve given it to my chil­dren. I can’t af­ford to rent any­thing,” she said.

Miset­ics said it was point­less to talk about home­less­ness as purely a lawen­force­ment is­sue: “In Hun­gary there has been a lot of dis­cus­sion about crim­i­nal­i­sa­tion but I am yet to hear a govern­ment of­fi­cial talk about any other as­pect. You can­not solve home­less­ness when there is no so­cial safety net and it is al­most im­pos­si­ble for some­one who be­come home­less to get out of it. You need so­cial work­ers, not po­lice­men.”

Pho­to­graph: Ar­pad Ku­rucz/Getty for the Guardian

Many home­less peo­ple say the city’s home­less shel­ters are so poor that they pre­fer to stay onthe street.

Pho­to­graph: Ar­pad Ku­rucz/Getty for the Guardian

Rafiq Ilona at the Evan­gel­i­cal Brother­hoodof Hun­gary ‘Heated Street’ shel­ter.

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