New Hungarian law cracks down on homeless for… being homeless

Homeless encampment in a park in Budapest.
 
As temperatures begin to drop across Hungary and winter settles in, the country has begun to enforce a recently passed law essentially making chronic homelessness punishable by a fine of 150,000 Forint (around $600, or the equivalent of the country’s average monthly salary). Yet as critics of the law point out, some cities such as the capital Budapest don’t have enough space to shelter everyone in need.
 
The law was introduced by the ruling conservative party Fidesz, on the grounds that Budapest did not have the capacity to deal with the estimated 10,000 homeless living within the city limits. Passed by a clear majority in parliament last month, the law prohibits individuals from sleeping in public spaces in towns and cities where shelters exist, but stipulates that those caught for a first time must first be given a warning.
 
Hungary is not the first country to pass laws targeting homelessness, but it appears to have taken a much harsher stance than some of its predecessors. Several cities in the United States have also enacted so-called “sit/lie” ordinances, however the main difference seems to be they only prohibit squatting public areas during daylight hours. One exception is the city of Los Angeles, home to the notorious “Skid Row”, which has grappled for years with chronic homelessness. In 2002, the city began enforcing a law flat-out prohibiting individuals from sitting, lying or sleeping in public byways. However, in 2006 a court of appeals found the law unconstitutional.
 
In the weeks before Hungary’s new homeless law came into effect on December 1, human rights advocates and homeless groups loudly spoke against it, saying it essentially criminalises homelessness and unfairly punishes a disadvantaged population for being poor. After organising several protests and sit-ins in Budapest, Hungarian activists have since started an online petition demanding that the law be revoked.
 
Repeated attempts to reach the law’s author, Mate Kocsis, mayor of Budapest’s eighth district, for a response were not immediately answered.
 
Video comparing fine on chronic homelessness to the cost of a luxury hotel. Video posted on YouTube by taszegyesulet.
Contributors

“This threat comes on top of everything else homeless people have to deal with”

 
Ballint Vojtonovszki is an activist for the organisation A Varos Mindenkie (“The City for All”), which defends the rights of Hungary’s homeless population.
 
This attempt to ban homeless people from the public arena is doomed to failure. In Budapest alone, there are nearly 10,000 homeless people for only 5,000 spots in emergency shelters. You can’t put that many people in jail – the prisons are already overpopulated. And it makes no economic sense either: a person in jail costs the state 8,000 forints (26 euros) a day, while welfare benefits for the neediest are of only 5,000 forints (16 euros) per month.
 
For now, we haven’t noticed homeless people massively leaving cities. Most of them don’t believe police are suddenly going to start arresting them from one day to the next. But the threat comes on top on everything else they have to deal with, the daily difficulties of life in the street. Given the lack of space in shelters, homeless people are wondering where they will be able to go if they are truly banned from sleeping in parks and streets.
 
It has been tough rallying public support, because many people are sick of seeing more and more homeless people in the streets in recent years. But we will continue to campaign for more affordable housing, and we will hire lawyers to examine whether the new law is constitutionally legal or not.”
 
 

Police dismantle a homeless encampment

Sit-in protest against Hungary's new law targeting chronic homelessness

Photos courtesy of A Varos Mindenkie.
 
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