Homelessness Is Not A Crime

2013. február 4. 11:06

The chill of winter finds most of us wrapped in coats and scarves, yet some might go without such protection in solidarity with the homeless, eeking out survival on the icy streets and snow-laden parks. The situation of homeless citizens in Hungary, as it is in many other countries, remains an intractable problem. However, that this is a universal issue doesn’t diminish our society’s responsibility.

The poor, generally speaking, suffer more during the winter months. Dilapidated housing on city outskirts is a vivid example of how these economic hard times have touched many layers of society. Yet four walls and a roof is quite a step up from nothing at all. While traversing the cold roads heading from one warm spot to the next, one cannot help but notice the number of poor making their beds under the winter sky, outcasts and untouchables hunkering down in subways, gateways and backstreets. The unfortunate fact is that the number of homeless is increasing in Budapest and other Hungarian cities, but where do they come from and why are they here?

A new Hungarian blog, 52történet (or, 52 stories), attempts to answer some of those questions by conducting interviews with the poor living on the streets of Budapest. The goal of the blog is simply to give the homeless a chance to tell us how they ended up on the street and what their average day is like. However grim and grey their tales may be, one reading the blog cannot help but become more tolerant and sympathetic to their plight. It helps us put a human face and name on what was before a faceless, anonymous society as they share their lives, lives that would otherwise have remained shrouded in the dark.

We read about Sanyi, a man who worked in Germany and Hungary before an accident cost him his job. Upon returning home he discovered his wife’s unfaithfulness, and the two were separated. Sanyi searched for work but found none, and now he lives on the streets around the beautiful Hungarian State Opera House in Budapest. “One should not fall in love,” he warns, thinking of his former spouse. Another street denizen, Attila, lost his wife and children in a car accident. After this tragedy, his parents also passed away. He lost all interest in maintaining a normal life, and has since lived in the same area for twelve years. There is László, who grew up with physically abusive parents. When he left home, László chose a life of crime that led to prison. Though he is older and wiser now, László’s criminal record scares off potential employers, and he lives on the streets with a homeless woman. “I love this way of life, no one hurts me,” he tells 52történet. Kornél is young at just twenty-five years old, but he lives in a forest hut with his friends. A forester allows them to work for him in the woods as a form of rent. Yet Kornél hasn’t given up hope and settled for his current life: He hopes to start work in February on a building site.

The above examples show us that the homeless are not simply a faceless demographic or nuisance to ‘decent’ citizens going about their business. They are all individuals trying to exist in a harsh world. It’s true that some have determined their own fate, yet many of them still have their faith. Most have faith in themselves, some in God and many in a brighter future.

When it comes to regulation of the homeless, simplified and harsh rules are not an option. As depressing as it is, homelessness can never be fully abolished in a free society. However, a free society must strive for a solution.

In November 2012, the Hungarian Constitutional Court ruled that it is not against the law to live in public places. However, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán criticized the ruling as unrealistic. Orbán felt that either the local governments should be given the legal right to deal with the homeless situation or a national law based on the court decision should be passed. The PM stated his desire to launch a national consultation on the homeless situation. It sounds dubious to me. Viktor Orbán is the prime minister for the homeless and sheltered alike, yet I doubt that the ones affected by the consultation would be able to participate in it. It’s possible that the government just wants to get affirmation from its ‘decent’ citizens who are fed up with the stink of the poor and want them removed.

Orbán’s consultation cannot solve the problem of homelessness, only exacerbate it. Threatening the homeless with prison or costly fines only attacks the symptoms and not the cause. The solution is not punishment, but an actual solution. I am pleased that the government spent 8.3 billion forints (2.8 million euros) on improving the homeless situation in 2012. This aid money primarily helped to build and maintain homes for the poor. We need to build on this effort by improving public safety for both the average citizens and the homeless. An improved justice system would be better equipped to focus on the real criminals, homeless or not. The poor on the street need the aid of individuals and the government so that, if and when they choose to accept our helping hands, they can step forward and make their return to society.

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