Hungary moves to criminalise the homeless

With winter approaching, a proposed law could mean fines and jail for people sleeping outside.

An estimated 30,000 homeless people are on the streets of Hungary, the UN says [Kristina Jovanovski/Al Jazeera]

Budapest, Hungary – On a chilly autumn night in Budapest, an elderly women lies huddled in the doorway of a glassware shop in an upscale district. Down the road, on one of the city’s most fashionable streets, two men sleep outside a luxury watch store, a suitcase lays on a wagon between them.

For the tens of thousands of homeless people in Hungary, these are acts of survival but they could soon be illegal.

The Hungarian parliament is currently debating a bill that would allow local municipalities to fine and eventually jail people for living on the streets. The bill, which was proposed by the conservative government, is likely to pass during a vote on Monday.

“It’s an awful shame…punishing people [who] don’t have a home,” says Zsuzsanna Zsefle, who has been homeless for 21 years.

Zsefle makes money rummaging through garbage bins looking for things to sell at flea markets. She used to be a bookkeeper. Now she’s learning computer skills in the hope of getting a job.

For 13 years, she has been living with her husband in an abandoned building with no electricity near the edge of Budapest. Zsefle considers herself luckier than most because she has the owner’s permission to stay there, although the place is up for sale.

An estimated 30,000 to 35,000 homeless people live in Hungary, according to the United Nations, including numerous women, children, older persons and persons with disabilities.

‘Protecting public order’

The government has previously introduced similar laws. In 2011, a local law in Budapest banning living in public spaces was extended to the whole country. Offenders could have been fined up to $650 or jailed. Last November, Hungary’s highest court struck down that ban, stating that it goes against the constitutional right to human dignity.

You cannot force people to go into shelters through laws… that is insane

by Magdalena Sepulveda, UN expert on homelessness

So the government changed the constitution. In February, several reforms to Hungary’s supreme law were passed, including one that allowed municipalities to declare living in public spaces illegal “in order to protect public order, public security, public health and cultural values”.

Consequently, a judge can no longer rule that a ban on living on the streets is unconstitutional.

The change received widespread condemnation. A report adopted by the European Union’s parliament criticised the reform, recommending that Hungary “promote fundamental rights, rather than violating them by including in its [constitution] provisions that criminalise homeless people.”

Two United Nations experts also condemned the law that criminalises homelessness. UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty Magdalena Sepulveda told Al Jazeera that, while she cannot speak specifically about the current bill, bans on sleeping on the street are usually created due to negative stereotypes about people living in poverty. She said that such laws are a waste of money and resources because the root causes of homelessness are ignored.

“You cannot force people to go into shelters through laws… that is insane,” she said.

Challenging times

Sepulveda explains that homeless people face various challenges that stop them from getting out of poverty.

This is the case for Zsefle. After growing up in an orphanage, she found herself in an abusive marriage. She says her husband would kick her in the stomach while she was pregnant, causing her to give birth prematurely five times. Each time the baby died.

She finally left her husband, she says, after he stabbed her in the back. She eventually remarried but after both she and her husband lost their jobs, they became homeless. They started to abuse alcohol but stopped seven years ago when they realised they were using it as an escape.

Hungary’s government has said the proposed law is needed to protect public order [Kristina Jovanovski/Al Jazeera]

“We are kind of like zombies that we can get used to every condition… we have to learn that we can only count on each other.”

Hungary is not the only country that bans behaviour linked to homelessness. In the United States, some local governments ban begging for money and camping in cities. What makes Hungary stand out though, Sepulveda contends, is that such a law has been put into the country’s constitution.

Banning the homeless from living on the streets goes against international human rights law, she says, regardless of what the constitution states.

Rita Bence, who deals with homeless issues for the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, says the organisation is considering taking the government to the European Court of Human Rights if the bill is passed, on the basis that it goes against international conventions that Hungary has signed.

She states that the government’s persistence with pursuing such laws despite international criticism is very worrying.

“This seems to be [a] very, very aggressive approach of this problem.”

Government response

An emailed response from the government’s international communications office to Al Jazeera states that the constitutional reform, which provided the legal foundation for the bill, was “to enable local governments to handle the issue of homelessness, and so to assure order in public spaces and increased public safety.”

As for the current proposal, the government states that if a ban is imposed, police will first ask people to leave before punishing them. They are also given the option of doing community work instead of paying a fine.

While the bill would not force municipalities to apply a ban, activists say there is little doubt that local authorities would choose to do so based on their previous attempts at curbing behaviour associated with homelessness.

The government says that living in public spaces “poses problems from a cultural point of view when it comes to the… accessibility of certain public areas, including areas frequented by a large number of people and also in terms of the protection of historical buildings.”

Bence argues the government is trying to make the homeless less visible, partly out of the fear that they will hurt Hungary’s booming tourism industry.

In Budapest, signs and tape were put up in underpasses in January stating that there was construction work. The City is for All, a Hungarian NGO that works on homeless issues, says this was a ploy to merely stop people from taking shelter there.

“The government just takes it as an aesthetic problem of the city… and just don’t even want to find a way out of it,” Zsefle says.

She is concerned that homeless people are being pushed out of the city. That would exasperate the problem, she says, because people would not find scraps to sell at the markets and have no other way to make a living. Plus, the law would force the homeless to hide from authorities, making it harder for social workers to connect with them just as the harsh winter is approaching.

Shelter budget

The government says it has an annual budget for homeless care of about $40m and that there is enough space in the system for those who seek it.

The government says there is enough space in homeless shelters through a $40m budget, so people shouldn’t need to sleep outside [Kristina Jovanovski/Al Jazeera] 

That is not true according to social worker Balint Csato.

“Even without forcing them to come here at winter times, the shelters are always full.”

At a Budapest shelter where he works, Csato shows rooms in the basement where the women sleep. There are 14 beds each in three rooms. When there is not enough space, people sleep in the hallways.

There are over two thousands beds in the building. Csato says the shelter is regularly overcrowded in the winter and people wait months to get into the single rooms, which cost $50 a month.

The UN states that while 8,000 people are estimated to be homeless in Budapest, there are only 5,500 spaces available in the city’s shelters.

Zsefle says that when there is overcrowding, mattresses are put underneath beds in some places. She describes how there are often cockroaches, bed bugs and loud conflicts with other guests.

Even if there are enough beds, many prefer to stay on the streets because of the poor conditions or due to fear of someone hurting them in a shelter, according to Csato.

He says the proposed law would be ineffective in curbing homelessness because people would leave the streets when they see officials to avoid penalties but come right back afterwards.

“Being homeless is rarely a free choice… you can’t change it by punishing [people], it’s not like bad behaviour you could cure.”

Source: Al Jazeera