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Where Are They Now: Inside the First Days of Hungary’s Homeless Ban

Gábor Sarnyai 2018.10.19.

On Monday a law amendment prohibiting the use of public areas as living spaces came to pass. The original goal of the policymakers was to rid the most frequented areas of the capital of beggars and homeless people. We asked the director of a Shelter Foundation to describe the first week following the modification.

A journalist from the Economist summed up his opinion of the city a few years ago by saying, “Homeless people pull down their trousers and underwear in full view of startled tourists before relieving themselves on the pavement near parliament.” This picture is the reality of nearly every busy corner of downtown Budapest. However, since Monday homeless people have disappeared from places like Blaha Lujza Tér and Astoria.

We asked Zoltán Aknai, the director of the Shelter Foundation, where these people have relocated to and whether these regulations actually encourage homeless people to use shelters, or simply lead them to inhabit smaller streets and outskirts of the city.

Feared Raid Against the Homeless Not yet Enforced by Police

The government argued earlier that the regulation’s goal is to force people to leave the streets and use state institutions. Aknai said that, in the first week, they have seen some increase in the occupancy rate of homeless shelters, but it is difficult to determine which factor sparked the change. Beside sanctions, social workers and charity organizations have been working at a higher level of intensity to convince people to use shelters.

The common argument is that people don’t want to use shelters because they are overcrowded and unsafe. Aknai thinks that along with these problems, many homeless people prefer not to use shelters because they have to respect the institution’s rules to do so. For example, many of them are primarily active during evening hours, but shelters typically close in the early afternoon.

Zoltán Aknai, the director of the Shelter Foundation

Could it be said that homeless people living in the streets belong to a separate social group? If someone permanently lives on the street, perhaps shelters think these individuals have a bad reputation and refuse to give them access to services as a result. A significant percentage of homeless people suffer from mental illness, which could lead to behavioral problems, and drug and alcohol consumption is not tolerated in these institutions either, according to Aknai.

Also, the system is not made to deal with people with these types of issues. These institutions do not provide accurate, tailor-made solutions. There are not enough social workers to help solve problems on an individual basis; therefore, if someone has difficulty living with others, he or she can easily find themselves back on the street. The system may have sufficient places, but they aren’t of quality.

Single-bed rooms could be the solution, the director thinks. The first homeless shelter built in Budapest in the 1910’s provided individual rooms for people in need. But, when homelessness became a more visible problem following the transition in the 90’s, institutions weren’t prepared. People sometimes sleep in double beds with thirty others. “Many might say they are grateful to have even this level of public service, but for people to get back on their feet, more social assistance is required.”

Constitutional changes weren’t necessary, earlier amendment already banned homelessness

The first version of the national legislation was annulled by the constitutional court because it gave too much leeway to local authorities, but the Fidesz-ruled government pushed through a constitutional amendment in 2013, which gave the right to local municipalities to ban living in their areas. Thus, legislation which prohibits habitual living in public places is still in force. Therefore, the authorities could fine people living in the streets.

Fidesz Lawmaker Proposes Constitutional Changes to Ban Homelessness, Despite Fact that Similar Laws Already Exist

Interestingly, an office specially charged with taking action against homeless people on the street has imposed exactly zero fines during the last two years. It should be noted, however, that this does not mean that individual district governments themselves did not levy such fines.

Chaotic past, overregulated future

Why is it necessary to change the constitution if such alterations were already made and not actively enforced in 2013? Aknai thinks the difference between Budapest and other big cities is that its legal framework was designed to handle the problems stemming from homelessness, but authorities didn’t make an effort to actually uphold the law. Therefore, it has been a pervasive problem for decades. For example, there were clear regulations; police could fine any citizen for urinating in the street or keeping personal belongings in public spaces.

These infractions could be handled using ordinary laws and regulations, but now the government is trying to legally tackle a more complex situation, one which is often hard to discern. Whether you are an ordinary citizen taking a nap on a bench in the park, or living in said park, you can be subject to a charge either way.

Featured Image: Wikipedia 

Written: Gábor Sarnyai

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