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Xpat Opinion: The So-Called ‘Criminalization’ Of Homelessness In Hungary

10.10.2013
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Xpat Opinion: The So-Called ‘Criminalization’ Of Homelessness In Hungary
The international media is abuzz again. This time it’s about the parliament’s new legislation on homelessness. The new law follows through on a provision in the Fundamental Law allowing local governments to prohibit habitual living in certain public areas on the basis of clear and justified criteria such as public order, public security, public health and protection of cultural heritage.

To read the international clips, it’s all about a crackdown and criminalization. The coverage includes headlines like Hungary moves to criminalize the homeless, Hungary approves new clampdown on homelessness, Hungarian homeless law bans sleeping rough or a UN expert opinion that says that “Hungary must retract law that makes homelessness a crime.”

The reasonable reader looks at that and wonders how this could possibly be true. Is the Hungarian Parliament really trying to imprison homeless people for the terrible misfortune of not having a place to live? If it sounds too far-fetched that’s because it is. That is neither the intention nor the result of the new legislation. And by the way, for anyone concerned with the facts, it’s not what the text of the accepted legislation really says.

But before the legalese, a more basic question: How inhumane is it really to pass a law that discourages the poor from sleeping rough on the streets and encourages them to take shelter provided by the state?

Consider some numbers. The capital, Budapest, has had a similar law in effect since 2010. Prior to the law, between 2006 and 2010, 131 homeless people froze to death. Since the law went into effect in 2010 and authorities have been empowered to move homeless to the shelters, one person died for the same reason. This supposedly “inhumane” measure seems to have saved lives.

Statistics show that there are 5,975 places available at homeless shelters in Budapest and 11,102 places in shelters outside the capital. The occupancy rate at these shelters is 77.1 percent in Budapest and 79.4 percent outside the capital. The state has shelter available for our homeless.

Now for the legal part. The legislation says that municipal governments may by their own volition (but not by any requirement) determine designated public areas where it is prohibited to habitually live or camp. This is similar to the decree in effect in Budapest and, by the way, similar to prohibitions against urban camping that we find in other cities in Europe and the United States.

Failure to comply with such a regulation constitutes a misdemeanor and may have legal consequences. But consequences in this case do not mean detention in the first place. It means that authorities have the right to order the person to leave the place. Failure to comply means that the authorities have the right to impose community work. Further violations may mean the community work can be turned into fines. If the person does not comply with the fines or the community work, then the very last stage could be detention.

Sounds tough, I agree. But is it really? Fact is that since the Budapest decree went into effect, nobody has been forced to do community work for this reason and nobody has been detained. Instead, homeless have had to register at the local shelters and sleep in the heated rooms of these shelters.

The shelters may not always be ideal. There are some, like the new homeless shelter that opened in Budapest last year, developed with 500 million forints (1.68 million EUR or 2.27 million USD) in government support, which meet the highest standards. There are others, of course, that are much more frugal. But that should not detract from the intention here.

As I wrote before, the goal of these rules is to move the homeless off the streets and into shelters, where they can find some basic nourishment and at least spartan accommodation instead of enduring the winter elements in paper boxes and underpasses. Some say that imposing restrictions on homelessness, those living on the margins of society, is draconian and callous. But isn’t it more callous to leave people to live on the streets exposed to the elements when we know that the result is more people dying from exposure?

Source: A Blog About Hungary

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