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

By 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.

Rafiq Ilona at the Evangelical Brotherhood of Hungary ‘Heated Street’ shelter.
Rafiq Ilona at the Evangelical Brotherhood of Hungary ‘Heated Street’ shelter. Photograph: Arpad Kurucz/Getty for the Guardian

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.

Homeless people at a Budapest shelter.
Homeless people at a Budapest shelter. Photograph: Arpad Kurucz/Getty for the Guardian

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.

Homeless man Sarkadi András at a Budapest shelter.
Homeless man Sarkadi András at a Budapest shelter.
Photograph: Arpad Kurucz/Getty for the Guardian

“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 law-enforcement 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.”

Kovács István András (centre) Perlaki Gábor (left) and Klembucz János (right)
Homeless men Kovács István András (centre) Perlaki Gábor (left) and Klembucz János (right). Photograph: Arpad Kurucz/Getty for the Guardian