- Ali Atia
Criminalization is not the answer to Hungary’s homeless problem
On October 12, the Hungarian government amended its constitution by banning the "habitual residence in a public space." As such, the homeless will be driven out of the streets and if they don’t comply to the authorities, they must participate in community work. But it doesn’t stop there. Besides being taken into custody and facing a trial if the homeless person refuses to leave the site, the police officers are authorised to destroy and confiscate their belongings. What is more, the amendment contains clauses which limit the opportunities refugees might have to receive asylum.
This move does not come as a surprise at all – Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban has previously expressed his wish of transforming the country into an “illiberal democracy”. There is no doubt that he is a fervent nationalist under whom Hungary is to face EU sanctions, as per a vote held earlier this year. Further, Orban has a history of scapegoating individuals and groups to shift the attention from his regime’s growing authoritarianism: other targets have included refugees, George Soros, and NGOs.
Previous attempts at criminalizing homelessness by Orban were struck down by courts as unconstitutional. However, the Prime Minister had persisted and eventually he integrated the law into Hungary’s constitution. According to his government, the new legislation will save the homeless from freezing to death. Bence Retvari, the Secretary of State for the Ministry of Human Resources, claimed the homeless needed more help rather than more rights, according to a video which was posted on HirTv website. This comment is indicative of the government’s attitude – the homeless are not entirely human and do not have claim to the rights held by other Hungarian citizens.
Unfortunately, Mr. Retvari and the Hungarian government do not realize that criminalizing homelessness is the furthest thing from helping them. While it might be true that large numbers of homeless people harm tourism and public safety, this solution will not bring the results they expect.
As anyone would have anticipated, critics have not been silent on the issue. Internationally, Orban’s actions have been condemned by the UN, and this legislation is one of several which further lowers Hungary’s standing in the EU. Locally, members of A Város Mindenkié (The City Belongs To Everyone), one of the several Budapest based organizations which have spoken out against the ban, claim the nation’s homeless shelters can only hold 10,000 people. The number represents only a third of the reported 30,000 homeless people who are now living on the streets in Hungary. According to a significant number of homeless people who have stayed in them, these shelters are overcrowded and inhumane. Undoubtedly, it is clear that banning homelessness is neither sustainable nor useful.
As previously mentioned, another relevant component of this outrageous law expands the power of the police in order to allow them to effectively enforce the ban. If caught by police, homeless people can be jailed, fined, and have their property confiscated and destroyed at their own expense. Hungary’s government again shows its inability to look ahead when these powers will inevitably be abused by corrupt officers which, truth be told, will likely be sooner rather than later if current governmental corruption is any indication.
The issue at hand now is what the future looks like for Hungary’s homeless. Tessza Udvarhelyi, spokesperson for A Város Mindenkié, said that the homeless have retreated from parks and public squares to more isolated areas in an effort to escape arrest, a claim corroborated by local media reports. The danger in this, for Udvarhelyi, is that the homeless are no longer visible and will be in even more danger than before. The homeless problem has not been solved – it has been exacerbated.
As for what the Hungarian government should do in order to attempt to effectively improve the situation, a priority would be working with private charities in order to improve resources for the homeless. Extremes such as criminalizing homelessness, or, on the other end, providing universal free housing, have proved to be ineffective solutions. Further, the government should focus on improving mental health and attitudes towards it. However, these solutions seem unlikely as long as Mr. Orban’s party, Fidesz – Magyar Polgári Szövetség, remains in power.