Stop Being Homeless, It’s Illegal Now: Hungary’s Constitutional Ban on Rough Sleeping

Tomas Castelazo // CC 3/0

The aim of eradicating homelessness has inspired numerous solutions worldwide. Hungary came up with the simplest of these: a constitutional ban outright prohibits living on the streets. 

Yet, the targeting of thousands of homeless people living in Hungary (a significant portion of them in Budapest) is not a new phenomenon. Hostile architecture – designed to discourage homeless people from using public spaces – has been increasingly dominating the city’s landscape; measures have been getting tougher. Yet the constitutional ban represents unprecedented repression.

The New Rules

The legal background of the constitutional ban is relatively straightforward. The Hungarian constitution (or ‘fundamental law’, as it is called in Hungary now) was adopted in 2011, replacing the 1989 constitution that marked the end of communism in Hungary.

Written entirely by Fidesz, it was a one-party project from the beginning. Since adopting the constitution requires two-thirds of the votes of MPs, and Fidesz had won a two-thirds majority, the new constitution was codified with single-party support in the Parliament.

Amending the constitution similarly requires a two-thirds support in the Parliament – Fidesz conveniently secured a two-thirds supermajority in April 2018 for a third time in a row. The constitution, planned to be strong and stable when codified, has been amended a total of seven times; previous amendments concerned things like the regulation of courts and supporting sustainable agriculture. This latest amendment also included anti-immigration rules, and was therefore supported by far-right opposition party Jobbik.

The ban on homelessness is the last in a series of increasingly stricter acts and regulations; and it is not solely Fidesz that supports tough measures to tackle the problem of homelessness, either. Dividers on benches, bus stops without seating, pickets, and spikes in front of shop windows are now commonplace in Budapest, sometimes initiated and openly supported by mayors from opposition parties.

Previous governments also adopted laws that were criticised by social workers for being too strict and inadequate. A previous amendment to the new constitution seemed rather aesthetically motivated, ensuring that homeless people stay out of sight of tourists. It prohibited living on the streets near sights of historical significance – a ban effectively covering most of Budapest.

The new amendment outright prohibits living on the streets. If a homeless person is found on the street, police officers will offer to escort them to a homeless shelter. Should he or she refuse, a warning will be issued; collecting 3 warning notices over the course of 90 days means they will have two options: enrolling in a compulsory work scheme or going to jail.

Fran Urbano // CC
Fran Urbano // CC

What happens to the belongings of homeless people going to jail is strictly regulated. Originally, they were to be confiscated and stored by local governments (for which the homeless person was expected to pay upon release). The latest amendment to the law now makes it easier to destroy them.

The belongings of homeless people, besides their monetary value, often have significant emotional value, for example in the case of family pictures. Additionally, dogs – an important, life-saving companion for many homeless people – are separated from their owners and put in shelters.

The Governmental Narrative

How long do we let the homeless try our patience?’ – A tabloid frequently espousing government propaganda asked on its front page recently. The portrayal of homeless people in media outlets controlled by figures close the governments have been bordering on hate speech; it represents them as freeloaders, enemies of hard-working, ‘normal’ Hungarians. Prominent themes in reports include the sanitisation of the city and substance dependence and abuse.

One newspaper published before-after pictures of the main underpasses of Budapest, rejoicing how the homeless had moved away and the area was cleaned. The same newspaper searched for homeless people still living on the streets and described the horrible conditions they inflict on the city.

The notion of harm in these articles is predicated upon the argument that the dirty, polluting presence of homeless people in public spaces restricts the right to clean air of ‘normal people’ and generate fear.

Many articles have been written about the issue of substance dependence among homeless people. Per official figures, a significant portion of them suffer from one or more types of it, with alcoholism being especially rampant.

Pro-government newspapers have used this fact to argue that not only does that make homeless people more dangerous to society, but because addiction is a choice, it logically follows that homeless people struggling with addiction being homeless is their own fault.

Critics of the constitutional ban are alleged to outright support the idea that people are living on the streets and thereby harm ‘normal’ inhabitants. One news site uses the phrase ‘ultra-liberal’ to describe this attitude. Furthermore, these critics are accused of wanting the homeless to die on the streets so that the number of such deaths could be used for political gains against the government.

Not surprisingly, many elements of pro-government media reporting overlap with official government communication, too.

The government claims that high spending on the issue resulted in an adequate number of beds at homeless shelters. Thus, any homeless person choosing not to stay at one of these shelters is unworthy of further help, thereby differentiating them from the worthy. Pointing out that the amendment to the constitution includes a ‘protection of the home’, the government goes on to argue that they have done everything to ensure that nobody becomes homeless and people are helped adequately should they happen to.

Worrisome reports detail the dehumanizing treatment of homeless people by the police. One article described how civilians, allegedly supported by the local mayor, terrorised homeless people in a Budapest district.

Interestingly, however, several homeless people say that police officers only asked them to leave the underpasses (where they are usually present in large numbers) – once they went to sleep in parks, they were left alone. This would suggest that the government wants to make sure the problem is not seen rather than ensure that it is solved.

This is further evidenced by Miklós Vecsei, leader of the biggest Catholic charity organization in Hungary, who likened a city to a family home and claimed that it is only natural that we do not show the dirt and the mess to guests. He is one among of the very few working in charities or the social services who welcome the new measures, along with some opposition politicians – but they constitute a minority.

Resistance and Opposition

The government narrative has been met with significant resistance and opposition. What everybody across the political spectrum agrees on is that the current situation is horrible – but not everybody agrees that this is the right way forward.

Many who deal with homeless people in any capacity criticized the ban. There are essentially two threads to their criticism: the effectiveness and the impact on human dignity of the new measures.

The troubles of homeless people are not limited to their often dehumanizing arrest. Homeless people have not been able to stand in front of a judge: they gave evidence and were sentenced through television streaming. This is rather unusual in Hungary: homelessness is the only crimes in the case of which offenders go through the court process this way.

Critics argue that this separation of homeless people from the jury further emphasizes their ‘disgustingness’ and ‘otherness’ – casting serious doubts on the extent to which the new laws aim to protect the dignity of homeless people.

Government claims that homeless shelters are well able to house the entire homeless population are disputed by critics of the ban. Those who run these shelters claim that they have filled up beyond their maximum capacity – and even then they have to turn away people.

Gábor Iványi is a Methodist priest running homeless shelters who used to be close to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán but had a fall-out with him years ago; he talks about inadequate funding and sub-par conditions.

Shelters are often not exactly great accommodation: bedbugs and lice proliferate as a result of extreme crowding, and many homeless people have had their belongings stolen from them. This is in contrast to the government narrative that claims that homeless shelters offer proper housing.

There is another dimension to homelessness. Social workers and NGOs dealing with homeless people argue that homelessness, rather than a single issue, represents just the tip of the iceberg that is the housing crisis that has been slowly unfolding in Budapest. They argue that it is in fact very easy (and it is only becoming easier and easier) to end up living on the streets.

For example, despite the government declaring 2018 ‘The Year of The Family’, there have been a great number of evictions, fitting into a trend of several years. A large number of families in Hungary are in serious debt and are going to be separated, likely to end up in the streets.

Besides, rapidly rising costs of living coupled with low wages make it nearly impossible for young people to own a home unless their parents are able to help them out. Older people are not much better off – the almost complete lack of social housing in Hungary hurts everyone.

Similarly, although government-controlled media outlets appear to suggest that homeless people are freeloaders, many of them, in fact, work. Holding down a job does not mean that someone is not at risk of ending up in the streets or in otherwise inadequate housing situation.

Therefore, the propaganda is misleading: more people are at risk of becoming homeless than they realize.

The precariousness of housing in Hungary has been increasing; but as Bálint Misetics, activist of A Város Mindenkié (The City is for All) points out, government efforts in the past 8 years have solely focused on punishing homelessness rather than making sure there is no need for punishment by solving the problem.

It is not just activists and charities that protest the new measures. Several hundred lawyers signed a petition calling for the revocation of the ban on the grounds of its inhumanity and ineffectiveness in solving the homeless crisis. A few days after, doctors joined. A few days after that, social workers.

The vast majority of these professionals seem to agree that the new measures are detrimental. Besides the petition, the legal profession showed resistance in the courtroom, too. A judge refused to sentence a homeless man in Pécs two times, pointing out inconsistencies in the text of the law. Some argue that the constitutional ban might be in violation of the constitution.

Although the government argues that there is adequate help in place to house and reintegrate homeless people in Hungary, many argue otherwise. The governmental narrative that talks about alcoholic homeless people leeching off and infecting society is hugely detrimental and without any trace of compassion.

It might be the case that only a few homeless people have been warned and sentenced since the adoption of the new measures, but the criminalization of what is essentially poverty is a symbolic step. Not only does this approach disregard entirely the causes that drive homelessness, but it also marks the start of a war waged on some of the most helpless members of society.

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Orsolya Szabo
Republikon Institute