After first targeting refugees, the Hungarian Government has now turned its focus back to one of its old “enemies”. Just a few months before the upcoming municipal elections in spring 2019, homeless people have recently become a more intensely-targeted group than ever before.
This article is part of our special "Focus on Hungary".
This criminalization of homeless people is not a unique occurrence in Hungarian political history. In 2010 Gyula Molnár, Mayor of Budapest’s 11th district and later chair of the Hungarian Socialist Party, also campaigned for “homeless-free zones”. The escalation of policies and legislation targeting homeless people has since also become a hallmark and perpetual struggle of the Orbán Government’s urban policy. Over the past eight years, the legal measures introduced against people who do not obtain legally-registered residency are becoming more and more drastic.
The government has been in this battle against homeless people ever since Fidesz-KDNP got back into power in 2010. István Tarlós, the nominally independent mayor of the capital (who nevertheless enjoys the strong support of Fidesz) promised in his 2010 election campaign to remove homeless people from the city’s underground passages. Ever since, the government’s legislation has become increasingly harsh against the homeless, although its measures do not help the cause in any way effectively. The number of homeless people is actually rising in Hungary, and as an effect of the long-lasting housing loan crisis and increasing rents, the housing crisis in the country is becoming more and more pressing. In 2018 alone there were about 900 000 ongoing cases of collections proceedings underway due to debts incurred because of housing costs.
A bill to punish “repeated violations of the prohibition on living in public spaces”
In June 2011 a bill to punish “repeated violations of the prohibition on living in public spaces” was introduced in the Parliament by three Fidesz politicians, all Mayors of Budapest districts. Soon after that, a referendum was held in the 8th district with three questions focusing on the prohibition against rummaging through garbage cans and living on the street and asking whether the district should be “relieved” from maintaining public services for the homeless. Eventually the referendum was rendered invalid due to a very low turnout (about 16%), but those who participated mostly voted in favour. This district later proceeded to establish an office for misdemeanours in order to be able to enforce its punishments of the homeless.
Legislation to punish “leading a lifestyle in public spaces” had already been reversed by the Constitutional Court in November 2012, so the Government’s response was to include it in the 4th amendment to the Fundamental Law (formerly called the Constitution) of Hungary in March 2013 to secure the possibility for localities to designate “homeless-free zones” – which actually happened in practice in the autumn of that same year. The session during which the geographical areas of these zones were to be voted on by the General Assembly of Budapest was blocked for hours by activists with “The City is for All”, an NGO advocating for homeless people’s rights.
These activists have been actively protesting the criminalization of the homeless from the beginning by writing petitions and organizing protests, in one instance even by occupying the office of the Mayor of the 8th district, and using forms of civil disobedience in order to prevent the authorities from demolishing the houses and shacks built by some homeless people. Nevertheless, the General Assembly did adopt the territories of the zones, and several other districts – including the Socialist-led 13th district – followed their example.
The decree on banning homelessness from the streets has not, however, been enforced widely, besides a few cases of fines handed out during the initial few months. After 2015 and up until August 2018 there were practically no recorded cases of police actions in such cases. The Government then took steps to move this agenda forward yet again.
The first lawsuits against homeless people
The 7th Amendment to the Fundamental Law of Hungary was accepted by the National Assembly in June 2018. With this amendment, among several other modifications, the prohibition on leading a lifestyle in public spaces became incorporated into the Constitution as a compulsory measure rather than just an option. Just a month later, the legislation took its current form: instead of a monetary fine and community service, the punishment for homelessness is now detention, while the police are obliged by law to take measures against the homeless. In case the person does not comply with police instructions to move to a shelter, after the third notice the police are required to take that person into custody – and the legislation makes this option possible already after the first notice.
The extent of the preparation behind this legislation can be seen by the fact that the text of the decree was published officially only seven days before it came into effect on 15 October. This decree states, for instance, that municipalities are responsible for the storage of the personal property of the homeless people taken into custody, that all personal property that cannot be stored should be destroyed and that the owner is entitled to compensation for said destruction. However, that section was modified just a few days before coming into effect, making the storage of personal property just optional for municipalities, not compulsory. When storage is not possible for the local municipality, it becomes the responsibility of the police, while compensation should be paid for all items that are not storable.
In the course of the week after the law came into effect, the first lawsuits against homeless people already took place in Hungary. The biggest media attention was given to the case of a 61-year-old woman who became homeless due to a legal dispute after her partner died. She got three notices from the police within one day and was taken into custody the following day. Her lawsuit was held on the second day after her first notice. This fast pace is explained by the law, which states that an accelerated procedure is to be applied in all of these cases.
This lawsuit attracted a great deal of media attention due to the unusual rules of the proceedings. The legislation allows the court to place the accused in a separate room without his or her legal counsel from where the accused joins the negotiation of the case by live video streaming. This option has been used by the courts in every single case so far, despite defense attorneys representing the homeless – lawyers of an organization called Utcajogász (“Street Jurist”) – explicitly requesting that they be present in court in person. The lawyers’ request was denied by the court clerks (who are responsible for these proceedings, not judges), which meant the only option for communication between the accused homeless people and their defending lawyers was for them to request a break and call each other by mobile phone.
Will the protests by civil society have any effect?
In the particular case of the lawsuit of the above-mentioned lady, the lawyers referred in vain to the faults of this legislation—that the law itself violates several international treaties, that it contravenes several passages of the Fundamental Law and other legislation, or that the act of “leading a lifestyle in public spaces” itself is rather subjective since the law does not specify this fact pattern clearly, leaving it up to the decision of the police. Nevertheless, the lady got a caution, while they took it as a mitigating circumstance that she would like to have housing again in the future and not to live on the streets. Her attorneys also asked the court clerk to turn to the Constitutional Court regarding the law, but this request as well was refused. In the first week after the law came into force four such lawsuits took place and the accused homeless people were, in each case, found guilty.
Civil society continues to act up against the criminalization of homeless people in Hungary. The above-mentioned NGO, “The City is for All”, representing homeless activists and their supporters, has organized several smaller protests against the legislation and continued their civil disobedience actions to attract more attention about increased housing shortages in the country. After seeing the circumstances and harsh court proceedings in these cases of homeless people, by 22 October more than 1700 lawyers signed a petition against the criminalization of homelessness. It is an open question, though, whether protests by civil society and petitions from the legal profession are going to have any effect that would force the Government to alter anything about these legal proceeding methods (at the very least). In this era of a third absolute majority enjoyed by the Orbán Government, such an achievement is rather doubtful.
Translation: Zsófia Deák
Proofreading: Gwendolyn Albert
 As shown in the document published by the Ministry of Justice in response to the public data request submitted by Tímea Szabó (MP, Dialogue Party) http://www.parlament.hu/irom40/17109/17109-0001.pdf
 See a list of provisions of the Fourth Amendment to the Fundamental Law of Hungary contradicting decisions of the Constitutional Court, published by the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, the HCLU, and Eötvös Károly Institute https://helsinki.hu/wp-content/uploads/Constitutional-Court-vs-Fourth-Amendment