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Hungary Solves Homelessness by Finding Places for All… in Jail?

Hungary Homeless

The brilliant move of Hungary lawmakers to criminalize the act of being a homeless person comes as a surprise to some. But this innovative solution to such a complex problem should certainly be known to the world. After all, this effectively makes all the homeless people – and the problems that come with them – disappear. From sight, that is. In fact, from the goodness of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s heart, these people will be given a home for free… in the form of a jail cell.

In 2011, Hungary started with their major anti-homeless laws. Homeless people were given warnings for their first offence (i.e., being caught without a house). Subsequently, they have been forced to pay the fine or be imprisoned. This is not news to the UN, who heard the following statements in a report presented at a UN General Assembly in 2011, regarding the laws:

[. . .] We also expressed our concern with the fact that the Hungarian Government chose to conduct costly policing operations to penalize homelessness, instead of seeking durable and adequate housing solutions for the poor, including those affected by the recent financial crisis.

[. . .] The Hungarian Government admits that there are currently not enough shelters in the capital to service the existing homeless community. It is therefore clear that homelessness in Hungary is not a choice, but a harsh reality,” stressed the UN expert on adequate housing.

But this is not just some flimsy law. The Parliament actually modified the Hungarian Constitution for these anti-homeless measures. Al Jazeera English provides this video report:

Echoing the independent experts who urged Hungarian authorities to adopt a national housing strategy, had this to say:

Blaming homeless people for their own misfortune will do nothing to address this social problem. If Budapest is really committed to make homelessness history, it needs to make a U-turn in the way it protects the people that, for one reason or the other, have been left behind, according to FEANTSA [1] President, Rina Beers said [. . .]: “Criminalising homeless people is not the answer. Criminalisation measures are cruel and ineffective, since they aim to remove the visible aspect of homelessness from public view, rather than offering any real solution.”

Perhaps it seems like this narrative was leading into a subsequent change in official policy or a significant – possibly uplifting – update. But no, this is the current state of affairs in Hungary.

“It’s not a Crime to be Poor,” ran one headline from Blogging LA. “Homelessness is Not a Crime” says the Malaysian Insider. Well… I guess they’ve never been to Budapest.

Welcome to Hungary, where the rich get richer, and the poor get arrested.



[For further discussion, see the comments section below]

[April 8 Update: This English-translated version of the law into English shines a different light on the situation:

Article XXII (1) Hungary shall strive to provide every person with decent housing and access to public services. (2) The State and local governments shall also contribute to creating the conditions of decent housing by striving to provide accommodation to all homeless people. (3) In order to protect public order, public security, public health and cultural values, an act of parliament or a local ordinance may declare illegal staying in a public area as a permanent abode with respect to a specific part of such public area.

Therefore, my statements above are to now be considered under the presupposition that the laws are being enforced to the detriment of the citizens. In other words… the above content is more like a “worst case scenario.” The ambiguity of the legal language in #3 is where the real issue lies, because it leaves the potential for interpretation, and therefore, manipulation. But the real question now is: how are these laws being used? Because when you look at #1 and #2, it looks pretty clear that they want to help homeless people. So it all comes down to #3.]

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