Thursday, October 31, 2013

Rough Winter Ahead for the Homeless in Hungary

A view of the city of Budapest. Photo via Wikipedia Commons

By: Hal-David Roberts
Produced & edited by: Tim Tripp

  On October 1, 2013, the Hungarian parliament amid prior speculation passed a law banning ‘sleeping rough.’ The new regulations target the homeless population in this central European nation.

  This means that being homeless in cities such as the Hungarian capital, Budapest, is now a misdemeanor criminal offense. The homeless, if caught by police, are now susceptible to community service, unaffordable fines and possible time behind bars.

  Lilla Katona of Budapest says, “The authorities will now be able to force the homeless to leave public areas.”

  The government continues to stand by their decision, saying that this law is solely to assist and protect Hungary’s homeless people. According to the United Nations, there are about 30,000 to 35,000 homeless people living in Hungary.

  This is not the first time that the Hungarian government has targeted its homeless population. In 2011, a law created in Budapest that banned living in public spaces eventually was enforced across the entire nation. People found violating this law faced fines up to $650, approximately 140,000 Hungarian Forint. They also faced possible time in jail.

  Hungary’s highest court was able to remove the ban citing a violation of the constitutional right to human dignity.

  After this ruling, several changes were made to the constitution in order to bypass the ‘human dignity’ right. These changes made it possible for Budapest and local municipalities to make sleeping rough illegal in order to protect public order, security, health and cultural issues. The constitutional changes received backlash from the European Union and many different international civil rights groups.

  Horvàth Márton of Sopron, a Hungarian city bordering Austria, feels that this law “only makes things more difficult for those [homeless people] who are already in a rough situation.” The latest ban will allow a ‘warning’ of sorts for offenders who will be told to leave before further punishment. There is also an opportunity to substitute the fine with community service.

                                                              Photo via Wikipedia Commons                                           
  Katona explained further, “Offenders will be required to work in public interest doing things such as garbage collection on the streets.” Those unwilling to do the work will face a fine of 50,000 HUF, which is about $230 USD.

  If caught ‘habitually residing’ in public areas after warnings and preliminary punishments, offenders will face six months in prison.Citizens are worried that the government is attempting to hide the homeless in order to protect other interests such as Hungary’s growing tourism business. 

  There are few alternatives to ‘sleeping rough’ for those without a place to call home other than the overcrowded shelters across Hungary.

  According to an occasional volunteer at Budapest homeless shelters, István Jeges, “The worst part of this new law is that it really puts some [homeless] people in a situation where there is really nothing they can do beside hide from authorities.”

  The Hungarian government insists that there are enough beds and enough space in the capital city’s shelters for those in need. Lelia Balint, who works at the Hajlék Ellátó homeless shelter in Budapest tells a different story, “We have room for about 120 but in reality 150 people are able to stay,” before they have to begin turning people away.
  With winter and colder weather approaching, Jeges says, “It will be sad to see how many people will be turned away because there is no more room because now they have more to worry about in the streets.” 

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