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Europe

Hungary's homeless told to move along - from everywhere

A proposed law passed in Hungary forbids the homeless from staying in public spaces where tourists could see them. Civil society groups say the government looks to criminalize homeless rather than cope with the problem.

Some say Hungary's conservative government under Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been waging war with the country's homeless since being elected in 2010. On a number of occasions it has run afoul of the constitutional court. The court overturned a ban on sifting through dumpsters, as well as a law on rough sleeping that targeted the homeless, which was later amended and reinstated.

Earlier this week, Hungary's parliament in Budapest signed off on the reissuing of a law forbidding the homeless from loitering in specific public spaces in a manner deemed "living-oriented." The criteria for that term are at this point very vague. The ban affects all of Hungary's World Heritage sites but may also include any areas declared by municipal officials to be off-limits to the homeless. Those in breach of the ban can be fined, sentenced to community service or even imprisoned.

Criminalizing homelessness

A middle-aged man with brown hair and a beige blazer speaks into a microphone at an official political setting, with flags draping the background wall Photo: Barnabas Honeczy

Not signing the legislation into law would be an act of defiance against János Áder's own Fidesz party

Members of many civic groups in Hungary have vehemently protested the controversial proposed law as soon it was passed by parliament and have called on Hungarian President Janos Ader to refuse to sign it into law.

"The criminalization of homelessness violates fundamental rights and is unacceptable," wrote the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (TASZ).

"With the new law, homelessness has become a criminal offense," criticized Tessza Udvarhelyi of a Hungarian initiative for the homeless called, A város mindenkié!, or "The city Belongs to Everyone!"

"A lot of people don't know where they should find work," she told DW.

Hundreds of people followed the group's call on Facebook to protest at the parliament building in Budapest.

"The government promised that all homeless would receive lodging in shelters, but there aren't enough shelters," Udvarhelyi said. Of Budapest's population of 2 million, between 10,000 and 15,000 are homeless, her organization estimated. The city's homeless shelters, she said, can only take 6,000 of them.

A man wearing gray pants and a sweatshirt sleeps on the cold gray concrete in front of a shop's sliding glass doors. Photo: Bela Szandelszky

Coming soon to a place not near you: Hungary's homeless place their hopes in NGOs, religious institutions and the opposition

According to NGO estimates, roughly 80 percent of Budapest's homeless population is originally from other areas of Hungary - from eastern Hungary above all others. Tens of thousands worked there in heavy industry until the early 1990s, mostly in steel combines and steel delivery. The collapse of that industry led to high levels of unemployment in a region that is today considered the poorhouse of Hungary. Many people there make their way to Budapest, which not only has more job opportunities but also more facilities for the homeless.

Government strikes back

"It is outrageous nonsense to speak of the criminalization of the homeless," said the Hungarian State Secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Gergely Pröhle. "The only thing we don't want is for the homeless to live in particular public places that are well-visited by tourists. That's entirely legitimate."

Udvarhelyi, however, said the homeless policy is one part of the Orban government's all-out hostility toward poverty. "They need scapegoats to distract from the poor social position the country's in," she said. "So they use the poorest of the poor, homeless, Roma and refugees."

Previous governments in Hungary, including the Socialists, also enacted policies against the homeless, albeit in a less systematic way. "Before the constitutional court declared the law against the homeless as unconstitutional, it had been valid for eight months," Udvarhelyi said. "In these eight months, a combined 130,000 euros in fines were levied against 2,000 homeless people."

For two decades now, prominent pastor Gabor Ivanyi has taken care of Hungary's homeless. His church in Budapest hands out food for the poor and offers a homeless shelter that is constantly filled beyond capacity during the night.

"The government constantly describes itself as Christian, but the new law against the homeless is inhuman and unsupportive," he told DW. "It's just like the actions of the authorities. They continually send out police patrols to the shelter and harass people - even when they're just standing and eating. All of that is deeply unchristian."

One year ago, the Hungarian constitutional struck down a similar piece of legislation. But as part of constitutional amendment in March of this year, the Orban government added a new passage whereby laws in certain areas cannot be annulled but rather only commented upon by the constitutional court.

Policies toward homeless fall within this category, making it far more difficult for Hungary's highest judges to declare the law unconstitutional.

In the past, the European Union, the United States and international civil rights groups have criticized Hungary's policies regarding the homeless, as well as laws dealing with religion and the justice system. Human Rights Watch said in September that Hungary's laws on homeless "undermine" EU law.

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