Hungary's homeless may soon have a new label: criminal

The Hungarian parliament on Monday approved a constitutional amendment that would allow local authorities to criminalize homelessness.

Bela Szandelszky/AP
Homeless men sleep on the floor in a shelter called 'The Heated Street' in Budapest, Hungary, in January. The Hungarian parliament approved a constitutional amendment on Monday that would allow local authorities to criminalize homelessness.

Already struggling through the harsh Hungarian winter and high unemployment, Hungary's homeless population may soon face a whole new challenge to life on the street: being branded criminals.

On Monday, the Hungarian parliament overwhelmingly approved a package of constitutional amendments, including an amendment that would allow local governments to make living on the streets illegal.

The amendment is part of a set of reforms to Hungary’s constitution, called the Fundamental Law, which the European Commission and the US State Department have both expressed concerns over. Opponents say the ruling conservative Fidesz party, along with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, are attempting to limit the power of the Constitutional Court, after it rejected a number of Fidesz-backed laws.

Protesters marched on Monday near the offices of President János Áder, demanding that he veto the changes. The president, who is currently on a state visit to Berlin, must sign the amendments into law within five days but, according to state media agency MTI, Mr. Áder stated he will not comment on the issue until he arrives back in Hungary.

The amendment is the latest move in an ongoing clash over the homeless issue between the Fidesz government and the Constitutional Court. In November, the court struck down Fidesz legislation that criminalized habitual dwelling in public spaces. It stated that the law, which was initially adopted in Budapest and applied nationwide in April 2012, violated the right to human dignity.

Before the court’s ruling, authorities were able to impose fines up to 150,000 forint ($638) or imprisonment for up to 60 days on anyone caught sleeping or storing their property on the streets multiple times within a six month period.

The amendment passed on Monday gives local authorities the ability to adopt legislation – which cannot be later challenged by the Constitutional Court – that makes it illegal to live in public spaces.

A necessary change?

The United Nations reported an estimated 8,000 homeless people live in Budapest and 30,000 to 35,000 live in Hungary, where the unemployment rate is 10.9 percent.

Minister of State for Social, Family and Youth Affairs Miklós Soltész says the government is spending millions of dollars on homeless care services, adding the amendments will include a requirement that local governments should provide enough accommodation for all homeless people.

“Imposing fines is not the objective here. So the idea is to have the local governments provide for these persons through central financing,” he says through a translator.

“People using the same underground passages [where homeless people often reside], let’s say young mothers or people who are ill, they also have the right not to have to pass next to people who might be carrying diseases where there is a public health risk.”

Mr. Soltész said there are currently enough shelter spaces to accommodate all of Hungary’s homeless. The law that was struck down was successful in getting the homeless into these shelters, he said.

“Last February when there were colds of minus 20 degrees [C, or minus 4 degrees F.], no one froze in the streets. And as this practice worked and the practical benefits were visible, we wanted to keep this in the fundamental law.”

Harsh measures

Homeless rights advocates, however, say shelters are overcrowded and the government should focus more on providing affordable housing rather than temporary accommodation. According to an independent research team called the Third of February Working Group, there were 10,205 official beds for the homeless in 2012 – well short of the UN's estimate of 30,000 to 35,000 homeless Hungarians.

Jutka Lakatos Bertalanné, who has been homeless for 20 years, says through a translator: “I was very angry when the government decided to criminalize people living in the streets because I think homeless people are not criminals and homelessness is not a criminal act.”

The 58-year-old, who lives in a dilapidated building in Budapest, adds: “The solution would be to start a proper forum with professional organizations and with the participation of people affected by the issue, like me.”

Bálint Misetics, founding member of the NGO the City is for All, says the government’s amendment “harms the legitimacy of the constitution,” adding that the authorities have used increasingly harsh measures against the homeless.

In January, caution tape and signs warning of slippery floors and construction work were placed in some pedestrian underpasses in Budapest where homeless people often dwell, which Mr. Misetics says was intended to deter them from seeking shelter in the underpasses. Activists later tore these signs down. In February, the local government threatened to bulldoze huts occupied by homeless people.

Alternative solutions

Some campaigners have called for thousands of vacant units in Budapest and other cities to be turned into affordable public housing. These empty units remain vacant because “very poor people do not have the income to afford housing,” says Misetics.

Criminalization of behaviors associated with the homeless is common at the local level in many countries, including the United States, says David Reingold, visiting professor at the School of Public Policy at Budapest’s Central European University.

He says these measures are often ineffective because they do not address the underlying conditions, including mental illness, addiction, and unemployment, that lead people to become homeless.

“[These measures] frequently push homelessness into places that it’s not very visible and it gives people sort of a false sense that in fact the problem is being managed when it’s really being put out of sight and out of mind.”

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