The Country Where It’s a Crime to Be Homeless

flag of hungary on a fist

“Away they ride to hunt the deer

The bravest children of Enéh.

Magyar and Hunor: two songs,

Twin boys, the giant Ménrót’s sons…”

In the foundational myth of Hungarian folklore, famously put into lyrical stanzas by the poet János Arany (our translation – apologies to fans of the original magyar nyelv), two brothers chase a beautiful stag for days through desert and marsh. The stag escapes and the brothers find themselves lost, but in a pleasant land where they set about founding Hungary.

The current Prime Minister of Hungary, Viktor Orbán, would do well to remember his nation’s noble itinerant origins. Since re-election with a supermajority in 2010, his regime has fenced off the southern border to prevent migration from Serbia. A founder member of Orbán’s ruling Fidesz party labelled the traditionally peripatetic Roma people: “…animals… unfit to live among people…” The most recent attack on human rights has been the clearing of the streets of Budapest of rough sleepers – by threatening them with prison.

Homelessness was first made a crime in Hungary in 2013. The penalty was originally a fine (basically unenforceable because the homeless had no money) and an order to move on (typically to another police jurisdiction where they would become 'someone else's problem'). A year ago, the penalties were toughened up to include imprisonment and in October 2018 rough sleeping within certain distances of public or historic buildings was declared unconstitutional – essentially ruling most of Budapest a no-go area for rough sleepers. 

The Hungarian government claim that there are sufficient shelters to put a roof over the head of the country’s estimated 20,000 homeless people. The Hungarian homeless claim that the shelters are squalid and infested with lice and they’d rather sleep on the streets.

The criminalisation of homelessness in Hungary has not even achieved its stated aim: the eradication of rough sleeping in its historic city centres. A sociologist who works with Budapest's homeless population, Zoltán Gurály, told the Big Issue that the homeless population scattered to avoid the hassle from the police, but have now returned, and there have only been four arrests, and no imprisonments.

The Hungarian tongue of the poet János Arany is a distant member of the Uralic family of languages – its closest European cousin is Finnish. The Finnish have an altogether different approach to homelessness. We’ll take a look at this different approach in our next blog post.

Is criminalisation the answer to homelessness? We don’t think so, let us know what you think on Facebook and Twitter.

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