From shelters to prisons? How homelessness became illegal in Hungary

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Woman holding placard : "We don't want to live in shelters!"

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 emerged.

man holding sign: "Affordable housing!"
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.

Inegalitarian 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 them.

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 street.

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”.

Warehousing 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 done?

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.


Photo: Hajnal Fekete, all rights reserved. Man holding sign: "Affordable housing!"