From shelters to prisons? How homelessness became illegal in Hungary

holding placard : “We don’t want to live in shelters!”. Photo: Dina
Balogh. All Rights reserved.

On 14 November, a group of citizens formed a human
chain around the seats of the councillors in the Budapest City Council
and thereby obstructed the proceedings. Holding hands, they sang Hungarian folk
songs and recited poems, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the
European Social Charter. They were the activists and supporters of the
grassroots homeless advocacy group The City Is For All who had engaged in
this act of peaceful civil disobedience to protest – once again – the
criminalisation of homelessness.

The city council
was supposed to vote on – and upon the forceful removal of the activists by the
police, voted on and passed – an ordinance which significantly expanded those
areas of Budapest in which homelessness is illegal. Since mid-October, an
amendment to the Law on Petty Offences had made it illegal to sleep rough
in world cultural heritage areas, which cover Budapest’s entire city-centre.
Now there is a long and labyrinthine list of additional areas in Budapest where
homeless people can be subjected to forceful removal and penalties, and other
local authorities all around the country are also passing ordinances to outlaw
homelessness. How did we get here?

The current
punitive surge has its roots both in the former “socialist” regime as well as
in the two decades following the transition to free-market capitalism and
parliamentary democracy in 1989-1990. Before the transition, extensive social
policies and full employment (for men) were complemented by punitive measures
directed against those “living an idle or alcoholic lifestyle”. It was illegal
to be unemployed or to be homeless. According to an ordinance issued in 1985,
for example, anyone found homeless in public spaces was to be arrested.
Homelessness was not abolished but punitive measures, accompanied by state
censorship of the press and academia, made much of it invisible to the public,
especially rough sleeping.

The disintegration
of the socialist system led to a decline in economic output and to levels of
unemployment comparable to those of the Great Depression. Deindustrialisation,
impoverishment, a rapid increase in housing costs and the closure of nearly all
workers’ hostels led to mass homelessness in Hungary. At the same time,
however, earlier criminalising measures were abolished, civil rights were
formally guaranteed, and an elaborate system of homeless assistance services

The comprehensive punitive turn of 2010

The 1990s were
characterised by informal police harassment of fluctuating intensity (depending
on the season, the proximity of local elections and the prominence of various
public spaces) without any attempt to legalise the practice. Starting the
mid-2000s, several local authorities attempted to push homeless people out of
their areas, but these were local initiatives and the rhetoric was often not
followed by legislative measures.

Things changed
fundamentally after the new government took office in 2010, however. The new
right-wing parliamentary supermajority implemented a comprehensive punitive
turn in government policies: labour rights were curtailed; entitlement to
unemployment insurance, disability benefits and social assistance was
restricted; a harsh workfare regime was implemented along with extensive and
obtrusive behavioural conditionalities; asylum-seekers became subject to an
unjustifiable detention regime; increasingly severe penal policies were
introduced with disproportionate sanctions (a three-strikes rule and life
imprisonment without parole); the surveillance of state employees was
authorised on an unprecedented scale – and the list goes on.

Prime Minister
Viktor Orbán believes that the welfare state and economic competitiveness are
in contradiction with one another (never mind that countries with the most
extensive welfare states are at the very top of global competitiveness
rankings), and proclaims that his government exercises power in the name
of the middle class – even though the vast majority of the gains from the
abolishment of progressive taxation have accrued to the richest one-fifth of
the population, and consequently Hungary is now burdened by the greatest income
inequalities since the transition.

social policies have been complemented by the colonisation by the governing
party of state institutions, including the media authority, the national
election office, the financial supervision authority and the Constitutional
Court. The 1989 constitution has been replaced by a new text – called the
Fundamental Law – which was unilaterally drafted and passed, and subsequently
has been changed frequently. The constitution has therefore been downgraded to
an instrument of day-to-day political struggles instead of being a stable,
consensual document providing the framework for such struggles and limiting

This is clearly
demonstrable in the case of the criminalisation of homelessness. In November
2012, when judges unilaterally appointed by the ruling party were still in the
minority, the Constitutional Court ruled that “neither the removal of homeless
people from public areas nor the incentive to avail themselves of the social
care system shall be considered a legitimate constitutional reason that could
be the basis of the criminalisation of homeless people’s living in public
areas”, and declared that “homelessness is a social problem which the state
must handle within the framework of the social administration and social care
instead of through punishment”. It was one of those rare occasions when one
could be proud to be a citizen of Hungary: the highest court of the land had
finally stood beside the poorest of the political community.

This victory did
not last long, however. Within days, the prime minister announced that the
government would not comply with the decision because it was “impractical”. And
with the Fourth Amendment to the Fundamental Law, they vengefully introduced
into the constitution several pieces of legislation which had previously been
ruled unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court, including the criminalisation
of homelessness.

Contempt for
democratic deliberation, disregard for constitutionality and minority views,
upward redistribution to the rich and punitive policies for the poor and
disadvantaged – whereas in these respects there has indeed been a qualitative
change in government policy, there are also important continuities with
pre-2010 governments.

This becomes clear
with regard to homelessness if we consider that social justice certainly
requires more than homeless people being able to use public spaces without
harassment. The only end goal truly worthy of embracing by anyone who believes
in the equal worth of citizens is not to make sleeping on the street legal, but
to make it unnecessary. What really matters is the right not to live on the

structural roots of homelessness

Homelessness as a
structural problem – one of low wages, an inadequate social safety net, the
distribution of housing-related state expenditures, and the lack of a
European-style social housing sector – has never been taken seriously by any of
the post-transition governments. Throughout the past two decades, there has
been an obvious discrepancy between the magnitude of housing problems in
Hungary and the severe inadequacies of housing policy.

Two decades ago, in
the winter of 1989-1990, protests, sit-ins and the well-publicised occupation
of major train stations by homeless people all made it obvious to the Hungarian
public that there was a crisis. As one of the organisers of the short-lived
movement remembered, “The final goal could not have been anything other than
for the state to treat the homeless as citizens of this country, whose status
as citizens entitles them to live and to be housed.” The homeless, protesting
with banners such as one which read “We are human too”, indeed demanded jobs
and housing. While they failed to achieve this, an elaborate system of state-sponsored
shelters, drop-in centres and outreach social work programmes did evolve, in
part because of the disruption they caused and the publicity they garnered for
their cause. Large, dormitory-style shelters opened in abandoned buildings,
unused basements and military barracks, wooden shacks in the child section of
the Communist Youth League campground, and even inside a huge vessel originally
built as part of war reparations to the Soviet Union. These responses were more
reminiscent of emergency relief in wake of an unexpected catastrophe than of
social policy.

Shelters did
alleviate the suffering of many, but these short-term victories were won at the
cost of losing the long-term struggle over the social construction of
homelessness. Shelters not only deliver services, but also perpetuate a
particular understanding of homelessness. The victories by homeless advocates
were won at the cost of perpetuating a misrepresentation of the problem and
misrecognition of its causes and possible solutions.

The cost to be paid
was the reification of the notions of homeless and shelter, similar to the
self-explanatory relationship we understand to obtain between such notions as
soldier and barrack, sick and hospital or criminal and prison. The cost to be
paid is that now upon seeing a homeless person we do not ask the question “Why
doesn’t he have a place to live?” but rather another one: “Why doesn’t he go to
the shelter?” And this question is not only one of curiosity but also one of
blame – as if we as a society had already performed all our duties about
homelessness, and the rest was in the hands of the homeless themselves. The
very idea that shelters are the obvious alternative to rough sleeping implies
that homeless people are not fit for regular housing and thus may reinforce
prevailing popular ideas that “homeless people are of a different, inferior
kind, not like us”.

homeless people in shelters would not be a solution to the problem of
homelessness even if these institutions were not so overcrowded, and infested
with bedbugs and cockroaches. For the problem of homelessness is the lack of
access to adequate housing. What shelters provide is the appearance of a
solution, allowing governments to shy away from more encompassing housing
policies that could really alleviate homelessness.

What can be

The question is
then the following: How can such a broader egalitarian housing policy reform be
implemented? And this brings us back to the issue of criminalisation. Such
measures gain legitimacy through the dehumanisation and moral exclusion of
homeless people which makes it impossible to develop empathy and a sense of
community and responsibility – the very preconditions of the egalitarian
reforms needed to eliminate homelessness. Political communities to which we owe
duties of solidarity (such as nations) are imagined communities, and a punitive
approach teaches us to imagine them as excluding those who live without a home.

The discourse which
aims to legitimise the criminalisation of homelessness does at least as much
long-term harm by blaming, stigmatising and dehumanising homeless people and by
redefining homelessness as an issue of aesthetics and order, as the
criminalisation does itself by harassing, fining and incarcerating homeless
people. Repairing the effects of the symbolic violence perpetrated against the
homeless by advocates of criminalisation will be no easy task.

For this reason,
the stubborn insistence on homeless people’s membership in the community of
citizens of equal worth and the defence of their basic civil rights can be an
integral part of working towards the provision of a universal right to housing.
Moreover, the radical denial of citizenship which criminalisation entails might
be what raises awareness among many who have already lost their compassion for
their homeless fellow citizens. Such a sacrilegious questioning of humanitarian
imperatives might in fact provide a good opportunity to engage in what Nancy
Fraser calls the “politics of need interpretation”, and to move the issue
of homelessness into the realm of housing policy. In the end, both
criminalisation and overcrowded shelters are unacceptable responses to the
plight of the homeless for the same reason: because homeless people are our
fellow citizens and fellow human beings.

* To see the original
source, click here.