The following is an excerpt from the literature review within our European Commission funded Women Rough Sleepers research project, which was prepared by our Hungarian partners for the final report. It outlines the ongoing tragic development of the criminalisation of poverty and homelessness in Hungary.
” In December 2010, the clearing of Budapest underground passages began under the supervision of Mayor István Tarlós. Extra funds that had been promised as part of the program never reach homeless care institutions. Also in December 2010, Parliament adopted an amendment to the law on constructions, which allows for penalties for the improper use of public spaces as a petty offence and searching through garbage is banned in the 8th district. In April 2011, the General Assembly of Budapest adopted a decree pronouncing habitation in public spaces a petty offence. The very same decree makes street music subject to permission and a payable fee. In May 2011, Mayor Máté Kocsis called for a district referendum to justify his penalising policies against homeless people in the 8th district. Although the results are invalid due to low participation, the mayor fails to revoke the ban on rummaging through garbage claiming that it is supported by 80% of the voters and in August 2011, Mayor István Tarlós talks about “homeless crime.”
In October 2011, in line with a newly passed decree by Józsefváros, begging and the use of public spaces as habitual residence were also prohibited. Within a comprehensive “law-and-order” campaign hundreds of homeless people were subjected to short-term arrest. In November 2011, Parliament passed the amendment of the Penal Code with effect from 1 December, initiated by FIDESZ MPs, which made it a criminal offence to reside habitually in public spaces or to store belongings there. Repeat offenders risk imprisonment for up to 60 days or a fine of up to 150 thousand HUF (approx. 700 USD).
In December 2011, Parliament adopted the new Penal Code, which allowed local governments across the country to punish habitual residence in public spaces and define further antisocial, forbidden behaviours. The new legislation took effect on 15 April 2012 and in May 2012, the Commissioner for Fundamental Rights applied to the Constitutional Court requesting the repeal of the legislation criminalising homelessness. In November 2012, the Constitutional Court ruled that penalising homelessness is unconstitutional and annulled the aforementioned act. The Constitutional Court deemed homelessness a social issue, which should not be addressed through law enforcement. By a complementary decree of the court, all penalty fees have to be paid back to those who had been fined under the law.
In January 2013 however, barriers appeared with “construction work” and “slippery surface” signs in several underground passages of the capital, Budapest. Their purpose, however, is clearly not to ensure public safety, but to keep homeless people away. In March 2013, Parliament adopted the 4th amendment of the Fundamental Law, which permits Parliament or local governments to restrict the use of public spaces for habitation in order to preserve public order, public safety, public health and cultural values. By April 2013, a few days after the adoption of the 4th amendment, the Minister of Interior submits another amendment to the Penal Code, which resumes the prohibition of habitual residence in public spaces, and, also prohibits the building of shacks in public spaces. In the same month, the Commissioner for Fundamental Rights applies to the Constitutional Court for a review of the Fundamental Law, which does not find any formal inadequacies. Due to the 4th amendment, the Court is not allowed to examine the contents of the new constitution.
Key international organisations have criticised the 4th amendment, including its articles permitting the penalisation of homelessness, while the Venice Convention and the European Parliament strongly disapprove of the Hungarian government’s actions in their reports. In July 2013, Rákosmente is the first district in the capital acting upon the measures of the Fundamental Law forbidding habitation in public space as well as picking through garbage on residential waste days and in recycling bins.
Now that Hungary’s constitution allows for the criminalisation of the homeless, it was only a matter of time before a local government banned them from public areas. In the summer of 2013, a district in Budapest did just that, issuing a decree prohibiting “residential habitation” (living in public places), banning “dumpster-diving,” and taking unwanted items left on the streets for disposal by the authorities. Offenders face fines of up to 150,000 Hungarian forints (US$655), community service or even jail sentences for repeated violations. In other words, homeless people with nowhere else to go are now targeted as criminals for being poor.
The local decree is the latest in a campaign against homeless people in Hungary which began in 2010, including a national law criminalising homelessness adopted in April 2012. In November 2012, the constitutional court struck down the law on the grounds that it violated the constitutional right to human dignity. But rather than respect the ruling, the government used its supermajority in parliament in March to amend the constitution to include a provision enabling the criminalisation of homelessness. The sidestepping of its own constitutional court speaks volumes of the Hungarian government’s contempt for the rule of law and its handling of social issues.
As a further blow, the Lord Mayor of the city of Budapest in late August 2013 announced that the city was planning a proposal to ban homeless people from public areas all over the city. That means that areas in any of the 22 districts of Budapest owned by the city will literally be off-limits for homeless people. Instead of taking their human rights obligations seriously by protecting the rights of vulnerable people without housing, the authorities are now putting Budapest’s approximately 8,000 homeless at serious risk of becoming criminals.
True to their word, the Hungarian government has moved to turn the homeless into criminals. With 245 votes in favour, and only 45 against, the government used its supermajority in parliament yesterday to adopt a law enabling local authorities to make it a criminal offence for the homeless to live in public spaces and ‘dumpster dive.’ Municipalities across the country now have a green light to impose fines, community service, and even jail time (if convicted twice within six months) on the homeless. And it’s straight to jail for those convicted of erecting makeshift shelters. This is even worse than the local decree issued by a Budapest district this summer that stipulates jail time for failing to pay fines; this national law allows local governments to throw people in jail just for being homeless.
The Constitutional Court had struck down, in November 2012, a prior law criminalising homelessness on the grounds that it violated the right to human dignity. Rather than respecting the court’s decision, the government, through its parliament supermajority, responded by including a provision in the Constitution in March enabling the criminalisation of homelessness, a move that showed contempt for the rule of law. Homeless people were among the hundreds who gathered outside parliament while it was busy passing this terrible law. The homeless people I spoke to wondered why the government was kicking people who are already on the ground. They insisted they didn’t want free housing as everybody seems to think, just the same chances as everyone else to be productive and contribute to society.
Hungarian authorities should tackle homelessness through social policy, not policing. Today, the rights of 30,000 homeless people in the country are at even greater risk and one of the contributing factors t this is the housing crisis. According to Hegedüs (2011: p.24)
“The biggest challenge for the makers of housing policy in transitional countries is to provide institutional assistance to those social groups who have become vulnerable due to structural changes in the economy, including the privatisation of housing and the commoditisation of public services.”
“Since transition, Hungarian housing policy has focused on home ownership, with little attention to the social sector with the exception of privatising the stock to reduce its capacity further at a time of growing need. The private rented sector is often the only option for housing for vulnerable populations, yet this sector is poorly prepared to respond to the needs of homeless people. Landlords can be reluctant to accommodate people with support needs. This study has also shown very starkly how housing allowances, and other benefits, are inadequate in assisting people to sustain housing in Hungary without additional special assistance from homelessness funds. Arguably, if the state does not have enough capacity to offer social housing to all who need it, and the construction of social housing units is not feasible, sustainable housing benefits should be made available for all those with a low income who need to be housed through the private rental market. Housing benefits should cover (a share of) both rent and utilities, and should last as long as needed, and not just for a limited amount of time..” (Fehér & Balogi, 2013)
In today’s Hungary, poverty remains one of the most pressing social issues. The number of people living under the subsistence minimum is estimated to be 3.7 million, or nearly 40 percent of the population according to figures from the Központi Statisztikai Hivatal, (2011, p. 2).
Millions of people are also affected by housing poverty. The number of people living in substandard and/or extremely overcrowded conditions is 1.5 million. In 2012 413 000 households had arrears in utilities beyond 3 months (Hegedüs & Horváth, 2013, p. 47) and tens of thousands have been in danger of eviction because of mortgage default. In 2011, overall household debt in Hungary was the sixth largest in the European Union (Habitat for Humanity Magyarország, 2012, p.3). In addition, 300 000 people live in segregated communities where poverty and unemployment are highly concentrated, and 50 percent of Roma citizens live in racially segregated areas with inferior infrastructure (Habitat for Humanity Magyarország, 2012, p.22). One million people cannot heat their homes properly and the occurrence of cold-related deaths is ten times higher than in other developed countries (Koltai, 2012).
There is a widespread view that homelessness is not a particularly serious problem. This view continues to prevail and to affect services throughout the EU countries that we have studied in this research which focus specifically on women’s homelessness and is funded by the Daphne III programme of the EU. This research is crucial because rough sleeping is a major issue across European countries and is especially problematic within the current economic climate. Many of the current issues that prevail in relation to this social problem have common themes across Europe and the magnitude of this problem is compelling. We hope that this research will help to raise awareness of this social problem and will encourage policy makers across the EU to take these issues more seriously.
You can find out more about this project and our other projects at the following web sites:
Fehér, B. and Balogi, A. (2013) From the Forest to Housing: Challenges Faced by Former Rough Sleepers in the Private Rental Market in Hungary.
József Hegedüs: Social Safety Nets, the Informal Economy and Housing Poverty – Experiences in Transitional Countries (2011, p.24 FAENTSA publication)
J. Hegedüs – V. Horváth – E. Somogyi: Introducing Social Rental Agencies in Hungary – an innovative housing programm (2013)
Hegedüs-Horváth, 2013: Évesjelentés a lakhatásiszegénységről (Annual Report on Housing Poverty), in Hungarian; Budapest, Habitat for Humanity Hungary. http://www.mri.hu/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/jelentes_veglszoveg_web.pdf
Habitat for Humanity Magyarország (2012) Updated Civil Society Monitoring Report on the implementation of the National Roma Integration Strategies and Decade Action Plan in 2012 and 2013 in HUNGARY (http://www.habitat.hu/files/HU_updated_civil_society_monitoring_report.pdf )
Bori Simonovits, Júlia Koltai (2011a): Employers’ employee-selection practices in the light of discrimination. Research report, Equal Treatment Authority, at: http://www.egyenlobanasmod.hu/tamop/data/2.2_kivalgyak_majus18.pdf