Victoria Sztanek

In a bid to control poverty with punitive measures, the Hungarian government recently criminalized one of the most visible manifestations of homelessness: ‘sleeping rough’. A recent October 2018 Constitutional amendment banning sleeping on Hungarian streets, has attracted much domestic and international criticism on the basis of human rights violations and infringement of the European Pillar of Social Rights. However, despite recent attention, such discourses, which place the blame for poverty on the individual, have been present for many years in Hungarian politics. The path to the criminalization of homelessness was laid decades ago.

Since the late 1980s, the Eighth District of Budapest, Józsefváros, has been considered one of the capital’s poorest neighbourhoods, though like many areas in Budapest, it has undergone gentrification in recent years.[1] The former mayor of Józsefváros, Máté Kocsis (who was also responsible for addressing homelessness on a national level) launched a public order campaign in 2011, banning ‘dumpster diving and rough sleeping’  in conjunction with a wider local law that forbade living in public spaces in Budapest.[2] Unsurprisingly, hundreds of homeless people have subsequently been detained for routine daily actions like ‘living in public space, public urination, consumption of alcohol, picking through garbage and begging’.[3] In April 2012, the Hungarian Parliament went further and made living and keeping one’s belongings in public spaces illegal, effectively furthering the ban of visible homelessness.[4]

The Hungarian Constitutional Court, in an effort to uphold the values of human dignity and property it had established during a period of judicial activism in the early 1990s, declared this ‘anti-homeless’ legislation unconstitutional, annulling it in November 2012.[5] In response, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán amended the Constitution, allowing local authorities ‘the right to decide whether homeless people can live permanently on their streets or not’, reflecting both Orbán’s increasingly authoritarian leadership, and the diminishing authority of the historically progressive Constitutional Court.[6] As a result, many local authorities passed decrees in line with Orbán’s anti-homeless agenda. This agenda was justified by the aims of protecting ‘public order, public security, public health and cultural values’. With a two-thirds majority in its support, the amendment passed in 2013, and it has subsequently been scrutinized by international watchdogs as an indicator of a deteriorating democracy.[7]

Sztanek Image 1
An example of ‘sleeping rough’ in Budapest’s Fifth District, taken November 2016. Image provided by the author.

This punitive anti-homeless legislative agenda belongs to a broader political and media discourse regarding ‘the “undeserving” and delinquent poor populations’.[8] The media tends to report on ‘cases where homeless individuals are allegedly involved in gruesome crimes’, portrayals which dehumanize them, and marginalize them from ‘mainstream’ society. [9] Eoin Devereux highlights this discourse of differentiation in media where sensationalist reality TV shows such as now-cancelled ‘The Big Chance’, have homeless contestants compete in a style akin to that of the TV show ‘Big Brother’. Devereux’s research demonstrates how the homeless of Budapest are portrayed as addicted to alcohol, gambling and smoking, and in need of moral salvation, which can be attained only by owning up to their own personal laziness.[10]

The emphasis on explaining ‘poverty and exclusion in terms of individual weaknesses’ not only contributes to a culture inopportune for cultivating real solutions, but also reflects a certain continuity with socialist times, when citing structural reasons as an explanatory factor for homelessness was forbidden as a critique of the socialist system, which should have rendered social inequality obsolete. [11] Socialism proposes principles of collectivism and a more equal society, with a remit that involved the central distribution of public housing and nationalization of apartment buildings.[12]  In the hands of Hungary’s twentieth-century leaders, this programme also included significant limitations on personal freedoms, including criticisms of the state. Instead of state responsibility, personal deviances were blamed for social inequality and homelessness, and in the 1950s poverty was declared non-existent.[13]

During this period, however, government programmes for social housing and work were set in place, including shelters to accommodate workers. Once social welfare policies were employed, alcoholics or individuals deemed to be living idly were subject to punitive measures.[14]   These punitive measures included work therapy institutions that resembled a jail workhouse as well as ‘deportation to correctional facilities’. Individuals charged and ‘arrested for the ‘dangerous avoidance of work’ faced fines and compulsory work.[15]

The transition from socialism in the 1990’s included an economic crisis that left many people unemployed and homeless. Inequality in the distribution of wealth also widened, where privatization afforded already ‘wealthy and, above all, educated people’ with ‘better housing at the beginning of the privatization wave’[16]. The political transition saw a re-stratification of society and made homelessness and poverty more visible, as the Hungarian economy suffered. The legacy of socialism and the thirty-year-old transition into capitalism is therefore incredibly relevant to understanding the context of the housing crisis today. Now, similar policies and ideas are used under Orbán’s increasingly authoritarian reign, where the aesthetics of presenting an orderly country are paramount and freedom of speech suffers.

In 2011, Hungary introduced a similar, highly controversial compulsory work program that forces long-term unemployed individuals, including some homeless, to work at a rate lower than the minimum wage.[17] In 2019, the gap between public workers earnings and the minimum wage widened when the government froze wages for the third year in a row. The program contributes to a flawed statistic of decreasing unemployment, which the Hungarian government cites to insist poverty is decreasing substantially.

While an average of 200,000 participants are considered ‘employed’ under the public works scheme, these numbers don’t capture the lived experience of those in poverty nor the full picture of employment. It also acts as a scapegoat for the government, as the unemployed technically have the opportunity to find employment through these work programs. However, it does not address practical barriers like mental health issues, addictions and physical disabilities. Additionally, those who earn such meager wages still live in poor conditions and while they may not be so visible on the streets, they are at risk of dying in their homes due to the effects of poverty. Moreover, the statistics used to justify the reduction of poverty highlight the glorification of a program that is punitive and exploitative in nature.

The leading grassroots advocacy organization for homelessness and housing rights The City is For All (A Város Mindenkié), reports that there were almost 600 criminal cases between 2013 and 2016 involving homeless people arrested for ‘sleeping in public spaces’, with the majority resulting in the ‘warning of mandatory public work’. On the ground, those subjected to punitive measures are not offered viable or practical alternatives to the housing insecurity they face. Institutional responses to homelessness have mostly consisted of emergency solutions and an ineffective shelter system, neglecting to focus on exit strategies or the diverse needs of the homeless. Shelters that do exist are usually dangerous, causing many people to avoid them and further contributing to the visibility of people living on the streets.[18]

Efforts to decrease the visibility of people living on the streets have been extended by the October 2018 Constitutional amendments. These amendments strip away the choice of individual municipalities to criminalize the act of habituating public premises in their jurisdiction. In effect, if those identified by police refuse to go to shelters or enroll in the compulsory work programme, they can face jail and have their belongings confiscated.

Sztanek Image 2
A “homeless” camp in Hungary. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

While homeless people are being pushed outside of visible spaces to help create an image of order on Hungarian streets, social justice groups like A Város Mindenkié are visible in their active petition against the government.  In the media, organizations that serve the 1,200 homeless in Budapest bring awareness to the issue of poverty, despite a government that strives to hide it.[19] Perhaps offering a glimmer of hope for more liberal politics, a recent October 2019 city election saw the victory of Gergely Karácsony as mayor of Budapest. Karácsony provides an encouraging alternative to the far-right and increasingly authoritarian reign of Orbán’s Fidesz party. Karácsony has proposed a plan to improve homeless shelters before winter approaches, and his election invokes a cautious sentiment of hope in the capital of a nation that has seen the encroachment of authoritarianism and a backslide in democratic values for decades.

The tendency to blame individuals and their ‘poor choices’ for their current socioeconomic positioning is a phenomenon not unique to Hungary. It is however, important to note that Hungary is the first nation where criminalizing homelessness is ‘explicitly enacted in the highest law of the nation.’[20]  It is also a country with inadequate and short-term institutional solutions for homeless people. When coupled with punitive legislation, poverty is reinforced and reproduced, punishing an already vulnerable population. These punitive measures coincide neatly with blaming individuals and their personal choices to avoid a critical analysis of the system, like under socialist times, structures and policies that contributed to their circumstances. The public works program and the criminalization of homelessness operate as an expression of power and authority, to keep statistics of unemployment favorable as well as to ensure tidiness and order on Hungarian streets.

Victoria Sztanek is a writer with an M.A. from the University of Toronto, Centre for European, Eurasian and Russian Studies. She has worked in the due diligence industry and is a Certified Anti Money Launderer. She  specializes on topics such as financial crime and is passionate about the environment and social justice issues. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.

References

[1] Marton Czirfusz, Vera Horvath, Csaba Jelinek, Zsuzsanna Posfai, Linda Szabo, ‘Gentrification and Rescaling Urban Governance in Budapest – Jozsefvaros’, Intersections. East European Journal of Society and Politics, 4, no. 1, (2015), pp. 62, 72.

[2] Eva T. Udvarhelyi, ‘“If we don’t push homeless people out, we will end up being pushed out by them”: The criminalization of Homelessness as State Strategy in Hungary’, Antipode, 46, no. 3, (2014), p. 821.

[3] Ibid., p. 821.

[4] Ibid., p. 823.

[5] Deena A. Zakim, ‘Housing over Handcuffs: the Criminalization of Homelessness in Hungary’, Suffolk Transnational Law Review, 37, no. 1, (2014), p. 146.

[6]  Orbán’s amendment is cited from Zakim, ‘Housing over Handcuffs’, p. 148. Historically the Hungarian Constitutional Court has played a pivotal role in the development of democratic practices through the country’s transition from socialism. Legal scholar Kim Lane Scheppele notes how since the early 2000s, structural changes have immobilized the Court’s independence and effectiveness, with recent rulings showing ‘a strong tendency to defer to the new government’. Kim Lane Scheppele, ‘Guardians of the constitution: constitutional court presidents and the struggle for the rule of law in post-Soviet Europe’, University of Pennsylvania Law Review, 154, no. 6, (2006), p. 1786.

[7] Ibid., p. 163.

[8] Czirfusz, Horvath, Jelinek, Posfai, Szabo, ‘Gentrification and Rescaling Urban Governance in Budapest – Jozsefvaros’, p. 72.

[9] Udvarhelyi, ‘“If we don’t push homeless people out, we will end up being pushed out by them”’, p. 820.

[10] Eoin Devereux, ‘Thinking Outside the Charity Box: Media Coverage of Homelessness’, European Journal of Homelessness, 9, no. 2 (2015), p. 268.

[11] Eva T. Udvarhelyi, “‘You People Would Keep on Dwelling’: Twentieth-Century State Responses to Homeless in Hungary from Above and Below,” Journal of Urban History, 41, no. 4 (2015) p 700.

[12] Bence, Rita and Udvarhelyi, Eva T, ‘The Growing Criminalization of Homelessness in Hungary – A Brief Overview,’ European Journal of Homelessness 7, no. 2 (2013), p. 134.

[13] Udvarhelyi, ‘”You People Would Keep on Dwelling”’,p. 700.

[14] Housing Rights Watch. “Mean Streets A Report on the Criminalisation of Homelessness In Europe” http://www.housingrightswatch.org/sites/default/files/Mean%20Streets%20-%20Full.pdf p. 103 (accessed January 9, 2020).

[15] Győri, P. (2010) Fedél Nélküli Emberek (Részlet).

[16] Judit Bodnar, ‘”He That Hath to Him Shall be Given”:  Housing Privatization in Budapest after State Socialism’, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 20, no. 4, (1996), p. 631.

[17] T.E. Budapest, ‘Public works in Hungary – Do as the Chinese do’, The Economist http://www.economist.com/blogs/easternapproaches/2011/06/public-works-hungary (accessed December 20, 2015).

[18] Udvarhelyi, “‘If we don’t push homeless people out, we will end up being pushed out by them’, p. 816.; Zakim, “Housing over Handcuffs”, p. 138.

[19] Than, Kirsztina, ‘Sandwiches and Hope for Christmas’, December 11, 2019, Reuters https://www.reuters.com/article/us-christmas-season-hungary-bikers/budapest-bikers-hand-out-sandwiches-and-hope-for-christmas-idUSKBN1YF1RB (accessed December 11, 2019).

[20] Udvarhelyi, “‘If we don’t push homeless people out, we will end up being pushed out by them’”, p. 824.

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